|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
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, 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. Inspired by a short poem by Li Po, I wrote the text for my piece:
High in September's winds
Drifting white butterflies
Passing silently by
With a shadow of autumn in their eyes
we may never know
© Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
"The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness" premiered at the inaugural concert of Pulse on December 1, 2004 and you can hear it here. 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 and real about the performance with the events of 9/11 only three years removed and still so close to people's emotions. It still remains one of my most special musical memories so far in New York.
(photo by Marcy Begian at Pulse concert December 1, 2004)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:46 AM
A number of years ago I started a composer's salon here in New York City to foster discussion on topics dealing with music issues. It was an opportunity for a group of composers and musicians to sit down together with good food and drink and talk (and argue) about various ideas and questions in a collegial atmosphere of learning. The talks were quite interesting and often lead to insights far a field from the original topic and subject; the recommendations and listening of various recordings of composers and groups I didn't know, for me, was a wonderful benefit to the Salon. So I thought I would reboot the discussions with the first of Composer Salon 2.0.2 on:
Tuesday September 22, 2009 from 7 pm to around 9 pm at the Brooklyn Lyceum (227 4th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn). The Lyceum has graciously offered their cafe space for these Salons and is quite convenient to get to, literally above the Union Street M, R Train stop in Brooklyn. The Lyceum does have various inexpensive libations including different beers 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. My plan is to post a new discussion topic a few weeks before the actual Salon which hopefully will provide manna to a good discussion. The night of the Salon I will put on my best Jim Lehrer and moderate things to stay (somewhat) on topic. If you don't live in New York (or can't make the Salon live), feel free to chime in in the comments on the planned topic and we can use those developments at the discussion.
Salon Topic #1: Because of the hoopla with the Terry Teachout 'Death of Jazz' Wall Street Journal article (which I chose not to comment on), as well as a recent blogging conversation concerning audiences between Nico Muhly and publicist Amanda Ameer (which I did comment on), I thought I would revive and add to one of my old Salon topics, which seems quite timely at the moment: the Audience.
I. In an interview (New Voices by Geoff and Nicola Walker Smith, Amadeus Press, 1995--BTW, this is highly recommended book featuring insightful interviews with many 20th century new music leading lights), Laurie Anderson says that her work/composition is not complete until it has been observed or heard [and subsequently] evaluated by an audience. She goes on to say that the measure of a good work of art is one that (as you experience it) “makes you want to jump up and get out of there” and go and create something yourself. How do you view this statement (especially in relationship toward how your own compositions are received by the public)?
II. The main premise of the book Hole in Our Soul by Martha Bayles (Free Press, 1994) is that with the rise of modernism (in art) in the early 20th century, there came a disconnect with audiences—an “antagonism” between the artistic creator and the consumer of the art. Before this perverse (her words) turn of events, the relationship between creator and consumer was not so great. (At least in jazz) high art and the commercial and popular were not always mutually exclusive. As Gary Giddins states, people like Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong had the “…ability to balance the emotional gravity of the artist with the communal good cheer of the entertainer…” However, with the advent of such movements as Dadaism or Abstract Expressionism in painting, the literary explorations of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Wolff, and James Joyce, and in music the dodecaphonic and serial explorations of Arnold Schoenberg, chance and aleatory music of John Cage and in jazz the rise of bebop and free jazz, large audiences mostly tuned out. Jazz critic Philip Larkin is quoted in Hole in Our Soul stating, “To say I don’t like modern jazz because it’s modernist art simply raises the question of why I don’t like modernist art…I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it. This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by (Charlie) Parker, (Erza) Pound, or (Pablo) Picasso: it helps us neither to enjoy nor to endure.” Do you agree or disagree with Bayles’ and/or Larkin’s statements/premises? How do you as a composer/musician, balance artistic and commercial viability in your own work? In the presentation (i.e. performances) of your works?
III. The recent dust-up created in the jazz world by Terry Teachout's August 9, 2009 Wall Street Journal article "Can Jazz Be Saved?" got me thinking more about how does a musician (or I guess any artist) go about creating an audience for their work. And not just an insular and incestual audience of like-minded and -aged musicians and friends, but a truly diverse cross-section of people genuinely interested in hearing the music. In the discussion between Nico Muhly and Amanda Ameer, there's talk of scenes and how they develop around record labels or the musicians on those labels. The Teachout article focuses on jazz but the same (tired) arguments have been going on for years about the aging and dying of classical music. And while the arguments have valid points, possible directions to combat 'the audience problem' are springing forth from various composers, groups, record labels, and presenters that are not complaining about the situation but seemly doing something about it: reaching beyond the classic audience-performer divide in meaningful ways and creating new and enthusiastic (if not always broadly diverse) consumers of their music. The wonderful and impressive story I read this weekend on Sequenza 21 of how composer Melissa Dunphy got the ebullient attention of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, The Atlantic, and other non-music critics and tastemakers with her opera The Gonzales Cantata, about the testimony of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before Congress. No matter your thoughts on the musical merits of the work, the buzz surrounding the opera will surely widen Dunphy's audience circle beyond her family, closest friends, and general new music types. Although I'd argue that any new people most likely to resonate with The Gonzales Cantata are probably similar in makeup as those already to be found at any hipster new music event at Le Poisson Rouge or Galapagos, it doesn't negate the fact that there will be people interested in Melissa Dunphy that never before set foot at a contemporary new music or jazz performance (I'm guessing Rachel Maddow is one of them). How can one build a lasting audience or a 'scene' around what you are doing? Once you have an audience, how do you keep them? expand and broaden it? Does that matter? How do you connect with the audience you do have? Are creating projects such as "CNN opera", theme concerts and suites ("interview music"), gimmicky or good marketing sense in order to separate yourself from the crowd and attract audiences? Are there just too many new music groups, jazz bands, etc. out there for the market of people that want to go out for live music (and are interested in hearing new music) to absorb?
Hope you can make it on the 22nd and perhaps meet some new faces for your own audience...
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 6:01 AM
A few weeks ago I came across these 1970's era Morton Feldman lectures at the University of Buffalo, where he taught for many years. These are short little audio gems, which are also transcripted. And while many fans of his music probably already know the background in the development of his style, hearing his slight New York lisp as he discusses Christian Wolff, John Cage, and "Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety" is still a fun listen.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 5:07 PM
After reading this disturbing New Yorker article about wrongful execution, it was good to know about there is a program in Texas to compensate and help wrongfully imprisoned inmates who are later exonerated. Not an excuse for all of the years these men spent behind bars but it is comforting to know that justice and fairness does live. Maybe Texas's generous program, and the cost to strapped tax-payers and governments, will make all prosecutors remember William Blackstone's principle "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer" and get things right BEFORE convicting.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 11:36 AM
While this has been a summer mixed with fun home projects, wonderful travels, and unexpectedly dolorous turns of life, I have been able to sit down and just listen to music at various points along the way. As mentioned in an earlier post, my summer began with a potpourri of CDs to go through. I've listened to all of them and immediately enjoyed a couple (Earl Greyhound, TV on the Radio), intrigued by some but still processing (Janelle Monáe, David Lang, Hans Rott) and not wholly satisfied by others (The Dallas Wind Symphony performance of Percy Granger's band music-love the source material, not so much all of the readings; some interpretations seem a bit mannered, stiff, or surprisingly considering Granger's music, flat). On my trip to the western part of the country last week, I was going through my iTunes library to listen to a few things I hadn't in a while and came across "Pilentze Pee" performed by the Bulgarian The National Radio And Television Chorus of Bulgaria (the so-called Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares). I first heard the song, one of my all-time favorites, years ago on one of my all-time favorite CDs: Late in the 20th Century: An Elektra/Nonesuch New Music Sampler.
From the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary, a sampler is defined as "a decorative piece of needlework typically having letters or verses embroidered on it in various stitches as an example of skill" or "something containing representative specimens or selections." And how do you show a good "example of skill" in a sampler? Well like the mix tapes of yore, whose creation seems to be a lost art ("And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth."), it depends on the maker, the listener, and the purpose. Sometimes a sameness of style and tone is required, whereas sometimes vertiginous diversity is needed. But for samplers from record companies, a more utilitarian and obvious function is necessary: to get people interested in purchasing albums from artist on the sampler. And before there was a Napster (which for me, when I discovered it sometime after it was more widely known, was a music sampler--trying on different artists I read or heard about (Radiohead and Björk are two examples) before I needed to commit), a good radio station/show or a CD sampler was the way to do it. The Nonesuch sampler, which a few years after release spawned a Volume 2 that suffered the curse of the sequel, was a thrilling overview of music, that up to that time, I had little to no knowledge of. What was it like to experience for the first time John Coltrane, Le Sacre du Printemps, or Charlie Parker. I wondered if it was similar to my virgin listening encounter with the music on the CD.
Bought at Tower Records in 1987 when their CD section was a couple of small bins and the disc packaging was a profligate waste of cardboard called a longbox, Late in the 20th Century was among one of the handful of CDs I first owned, having just bought a CD player at the beginning of that year--one which I still have and still plays CDs, although the quartz display long ago went blind. (As an aside, it was an old Technics which had a great function that you didn't see much of in later years: an A/B button. You could specify a particular section of the CD to loop and repeat for as long as you wanted. I wished future CD players had had that as it was handy when learning saxophone solos like "Mr. Magic", the first I completely learned).
Anyway, I'm not sure why I bought the CD in the first place but it deserves this humble encomium for in those long ago, rapacious listening days of a beginning composer, the performances and compositions on Late in the 20th Century not only provided immense joys, ever protean surprises, and glorious inspiration, I now realize that they also were a palimpsest on which I started to slowly build my own musical voice and style upon. It was the trail head for many paths of musical discovery, of which I'm still traveling.
Track 1: "White Man Sleeps #1" by Kevin Volans performed by the Kronos Quartet from album White Man Sleeps
(love the energy of the piece, with it's loping, asymmetrical opening rhythm; I didn't buy the album, but was introduced to Kronos Quartet, of whom I did subsequently buy other albums)
Track 2: "The Chairman Dances" by John Adams performed by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony from the album The Chairman Dances
(upon reflection, this piece might have been why I bought the CD in the first place because I remember reading at the time something about the Nixon in China premiere in the paper. I think this was the first piece of John Adams I ever heard and this performance is still my favorite of one of my favorite pieces. Full of Gershwin-esque life and jazzy motion and a cinematic scope, it was a visceral combination and a lighthouse to a gestating composer groping his way in the musical fog. It was years later before I assimilated the lessons stolen (ahh...learnt) from the piece and over the years, it certainly lead me to padding Nonesuch's sales figures as I discovered (and bought) more and more works of John Adams)
Track 3: "Pilentze Pee" from Le Mysterie des Voix Bulgares
(I don't know what the words they are singing mean but I love all of those close intervals and otherworldly wailing and had to buy the CD)
Track 4: "Spillane (excerpt)" by John Zorn from Spillane
(my first auditory exposure to John Zorn after reading about him in downbeat (I actually had a subscription way back then); with it's flighty shape shifting between styles, as well as its' noir-ish voice over, I didn't listened to this piece too often, although it didn't turn me off to Zorn's work. I just didn't like this)
Track 5: "Hattie Wall" by Hamiet Bluiett performed by the World Saxophone Quartet on the album Dances and Ballads
(Hamiet's bari sax bass line just tears through you with the funk; got to hear this live at the 27 hour! Bang on a Can Marathon in 2007)
Track 6: "This New Generation" by Wayne Horvitz from the album This New Generation
(kind of an electronica lounge music with the cooing tenor saxophone and 80's drum machine and beat, I could see this on the soundtrack to Twin Peaks which premiered a few years after the CD)
Track 7: "Garota de Ipanema" by Antonio Carlos Jobim/Vinicius de Moraes performed by João Gilberto from the album João Gilberto Live in Montreux
(beautifully calm and moving reading with just João Gilberto and a guitar)
Track 8: "John Somebody (Part 1)" by Scott Johnson from album John Somebody
(got to love this fun piece for solo electric guitar and tape; "you know who's in New York, remember that guy, J...John Somebody, he was sorta...b")
Tracks 9 and 10: "Company (Part 1 and 2)" by Philip Glass performed by the Kronos Quartet from the album Kronos Quartet
(full of a quiet, yet almost romantic yearning tone, this is still one of my favorite Philip Glass pieces)
Track 11: "Ionisation" by Edgar Varese performed by The New Jersey Percussion Ensemble from album Percussion Music
(someone needs to arrange this into a drum line feature for marching band or drum and bugle corp)
Track 12: "Chohun and Gyamadudu (excerpt)" from album Dances of the World
(this track recorded in Ghana grooves, but was always one track I skipped as it never grabbed me like some others)
Track 13: "Tonggeret" composed and performed by Idjah Hadidjah from the album Tonggeret
(love this song and even after all of these years, Idjah's voice still drips with passion for me. Like the song from the Bulgarian choir, I don't know the meaning of what she is singing, but it moves me every time)
Track 14: "Drumming (Part 4)" by Steve Reich performed by Steve Reich and Musicians from the album Drumming
(although this wasn't my first exposure to his music, it was one of my early experiences. And maybe interestingly knowing how other later Steve Reich compositions affected me, this was one of those tracks I really didn't listen to; Drumming is much better to embrace live)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 1:00 AM
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
40 years ago yesterday was the start of the Woodstock Festival and reading and thinking about it sparked other thoughts about another icon of the 60s, the Beatles and the hoopla surrounding the upcoming release of remastered Beatles albums in September. And I realized something, which I've felt for sometime now, but only manifested into concrete form during my contemplations:
I'm not a fan of the Beatles or of Woodstock.
Now before I hear classic cries of heresy that usually accompany displeasure of something canonical ("how can you not like the Beatles?", "are you crazy?", "you have no taste in music", etc.), my lack of enthusiasm for the Beatles and Woodstock is not for lack of understanding (I guess some WOULD say I lack understanding if I don't like them). I have seen the Woodstock DVD and listened to many Beatles songs over the years (both originals and arrangements--I have the Basie on Beetles vinyl somewhere and a Wes Montgomery rendition of "A Day in the Life"). I have read about both and yes, I get that the Beatles revolutionized recording techniques and influenced all popular songcraft (and celebrity) and yes I get Woodstock marked a sort of milestone of cultural and musical convergence of (some of) the 196o's themes: hippies, war, peace, love, rock and roll.
It's just that they don't move me. Well, at least not in the same way that they seem to move all the arbiters of cultural relevance. Don't get me wrong, I do respect the Beatles and even like some songs (especially from Sgt. Pepper's; also this past winter on the radio I listened intently to The Beatles White Album Listening Party and was fascinated by some of what I heard and certainly plan to add that album to my collection when the remaster comes out). And with Woodstock, while really enjoying Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Joe Cocker among other performances on the concert film, when I start to hear people talk about their recollections of being at Woodstock as some incredible moment!, my eyes start to glaze over like when people say, "ah, back in the day, New York in the _____'s, that was the real New York" or "you should'a been at Ebbets Field". I feel like that women in the Wrigley's commercial who while looking for another piece of gum misses "the moment".
Sure, hearing about "back in the day" can be interesting and fascinating, but it can also sometimes strike me as a bit distant and off-putting. I did this, lived through this, heard this...and you didn't. In some ways it doesn't value the present, always looking back to a (real or imagined) "better time" which I guess we are all guilty of at times.
So still knowing all that I do about Woodstock and the Beatles, hearing and seeing what I've seen and heard, I always come back to, what's the big deal? It's like that line about Elvis in Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" (comes 2:38 in video), and I paraphrase (and cleaning it up) here: a hero to most, don't mean anything to me. Writer John Murph on The Root has an interesting article looking at Woodstock from a different perspective but for me as a rational, intellectual person (regardless of personal background), shouldn't the adoration of the Beatles and Woodstock be up there like other (supposed) high cultural totems: French cinema from the 60's, Ginsburg, Seinfeld, Ellison, Radiohead, Duke Ellington?
We've all met or dated people where you do like each other but you're missing that thing, that spark, that "YES YES YES YES YES YES" moment in your brain, of real emotional (or physical) connection with another. For me, I think the Beatles and Woodstock will always be that respected acquaintance I'll see at a distance or run across every so often, but whom, for me, there is no there there. Not that there's anything wrong with that...
On an entirely different subject, Friday was Magic Johnson's 50th birthday and as Roy S. Johnson writes on his Yahoo Sports Blog, "I never thought I'd see this celebration". Magic was one of my favorites players growing up. I remember seeing the Michigan State (Magic)-Indiana State (Larry Bird) dual, Magic's rookie season NBA Final's heroics ("back in the day"--see even I can't get away from it!--the broadcast from the West Coast came on at 10 or 11pm Eastern Standard Time-can't imagine THAT happening now), playoff battles with the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, and later the Chicago Bulls, and of course, his announcement of HIV and early retirement. As Roy Johnson points out, with all of his post-NBA business dealings, Magic is one of the few athletes to make more money in retirement than during his playing days.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 6:58 AM
Along with being busy converting and editing Pulse and Numinous videos, last weekend I finished Donald Spoto's Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies. I originally checked this book out from the library to take with me on my Paris trip early last week; I wanted something light and fun for the plane ride. However the Hitchcock quote on the front cover was an indication that this book wasn't going to be what I thought: "The trouble today is that we don't torture women enough." Ah, okay. Now once I began reading the book, I found the context for the quote-Hitchcock was describing the traditional way, since the early days of film, of creating excitement on-screen: the "lady in distress" which Hitch felt (at that time) was lost. However, I'm thinking Hitchcock actually DID believe in his quote what with the treatment endured by many of his leading women, usually from Hitchcock himself, which was often rude and controlling, sometimes misogynistic, and with a few women, downright sexual harassment.
Now growing up, I knew OF Hitchcock. He was an icon--the rotund, jowled avuncular figure who made those old horror movies, Psycho and The Birds. Of course I never actually SAW Psycho or The Birds growing up. But I didn't really need to; shower scene (check!), Bates Motel (yep, check!), crazy birds attacking (you betcha!)--I knew it all without ever seeing it because it was all just part of the stream of American culture. I was young when Hitchcock died in 1980 and his death never really marked anything for me. He was apart of that long ago world which also included people such as Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, Joe "Mr. Coffee" DiMaggio, Princess Grace, and Betty Davis; all of whom were alive when I was younger and while I was cognizant then that they were somebody back in the day (especially Joltin' Joe, since I was hugely into baseball), I knew little to nothing about them at the time, well except for occasional glimpses in the National Enquirer or featured on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.
It wasn't until about six years ago that I began to be interested in Hitchcock and his body of films. I don't really know how it started except that I check out one or two of his movies from the library and was hooked. The 39 Steps, Notorious, Spellbound, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions), North by Northwest, Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window (seeing Grace Kelly in that movie inspired me to write a piece about her, "Passion of a Quiet Flower"), Frenzy and yes, finally Psycho and The Birds, I saw all that the library had (seems like I had more time to watch movies back then). I was struck how Hitchcock was able to balance artistic demands, technical virtuosity, humor, and serious psychological and human nature study all wrapped up in a bon-bon that feted a wide and diverse audience, one that Joe Six-Pack and Mademoiselle Cinema-ista could both enjoy. Indeed, Hitchcock was the public's auteur. Even his last movie, Family Plot from 1976, when he was going through the motions and young, hip directors such as Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Steven Spielberg seemly past him by, there were still wonderful moments that demonstrated he still had the touch: such as the (literal) killing scene on the staircase where the woman's long purple dress gracefully flows full, all shot from a perspective high above the scene. And of course the music, especially the Bernard Herrmann scores to Psycho and Vertigo, was fantastic. Listening recently I'm still impressed and moved by the end of the shower scene of Psycho and how those strings sound like last gasps of air or the opening montage in Vertigo with the wonderful Eb minor-major 7th, contrasting motion arpeggios with the Saul Bass swirling graphics and later in the film with the growing tension and climax of the Madeleine 'revealing'.
Spellbound by Beauty is a chronological overview of Hitchcock's movies, with a focus on his relationship to not only his leading ladies but also the supporting actresses as well. Through interviews with many actors and actresses, writers, and other collaborators who worked with Hitch over his long career, most agreed that he could be charming and witty and certainly a genius but who was also frustrated sexually which manifested itself through crude sexual and bathroom humor, a controlling manner, and an often standoff-ishness with women not his ideal (of course his ideal was blond: Madeleine Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Vera Miles, Tippi Hedren). There was one quite sad quote from Hitchcock himself which said he had the same feelings as everyone else, just "wrapped in a body of fat". The book is mostly gossipy, but there are many interesting tales and facts to be found: what wonderful and warm people Ingrid Bergman and Madeleine Carroll were, what a control freak producer David "Gone with the Wind" O. Selznick was, how Tallulah Bankhead was the Lindsay Lohan of her day, and astonished in how the treatment of Tippi Hedren during The Birds and Marnie was criminal and who NEVER happen or be allowed today--the final scene in The Birds basically involved the crew throwing live birds at Tippi Hedren for a week of filming; the isolation, controlling, stalking and sexual harassment on and off set of Marnie. Also there is some interesting analysis of how some of his films, particularly Vertigo and Marnie, could be autobiographical but overall I wasn't very happy with the writing of the book. I guess a question that could be asked is whether all of the salacious details of Hitchcock, change my high opinion of his films? Will Grace Kelly be diminished in my eyes? I hope not (I can still listen to Wagner even though he was a reprehensible person), but even I'm curious to find out if it will the next time I watch Rear Window (I guess either way, I'll always have the first time of the "Kiss")...
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:00 AM
It was a happy coincidence that just before my short trip to Paris earlier this week I finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, which is set in The City of Lights of the 1930s. The book won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for Best Illustrated Children's Book although in truth it is more of a hybrid: thicker and more prosaic (in the literal sense) than most picture books yet too many drawings to be a novel or storybook. The story begins with a brief introductory overview by "Professor H. Alcofrisbas", our narrator of sorts and leads directly into a wonderful black and white pencil drawing of the moon, then the moon over Paris, and eventually we find ourselves looking in a bustling train station and a close up of our namesake, a young pre-adolescent boy hustling through said station.
The book proceeds to gradually unfurl the story of Hugo and how a broken mechanical man he found in a fire changes the rest of his life. At first, I was thinking the story was going to go in a fantastical, "Pinocchio" direction, but it evolves into a more realistic reverie on finding our way back into the world (and making connections with others) after a loss. In general the drawings in the book are cinematic in composition and concept with many interesting point of view perspectives, close-ups, and some consecutive drawings which in film would be dolly shots. Now this is apt since film and cinema play a central role in the story. Overall I found the book pleasant with Hugo, the toy shop owner, Georges and his daughter Isabelle forming the compelling central axis of the story. However, some of the most interesting parts of the book for me were the pages of actual photos, stills, and drawings from cinema of the 1920s. These were fun to see and reminded me of a DVD set of preserved films I bought almost 10 years ago, Treasures from American Film Archives. The early films, newsreels, documentaries, and one-reel adventures from that DVD set brought about a similar sense of voyeurism of a time and life long since past that I found in those actual photos from Hugo Cabret. Right now one of the books I'm reading is Spellbound by Beauty, Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto (the other is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz) and so far the stories about the early days of Hitchcock's career are another fascinating window into that world of early cinema which Hugo Cabret peeks into.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 12:01 PM
NPR's Fresh Air this evening was a tribute to Merce Cunningham, who many of you know died on Sunday. The show featured a rebroadcast of a 1985 interview with Cunningham as well as another discussion from 1982 with his life partner and collaborator John Cage. Both talks were interesting, but for me listening to John Cage, with his warm tone and wise avuncular demeanor, speak about his process was mesmerizing (I even had my own driveway moment, well I was actually standing by my door ready to leave when I stopped to listen to the "Zen Master of Music"). Also just as I was listening to the subtle differences in the 1982 Terry Gross voice as compared to now, I was struck how that act of noticing (paying attention) mirrored some of what Cage was actually talking about at that moment! As always when listening to Cage, I find his thoughts fascinating and always contemplative.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:57 PM
I just finished my third summer read Common Sense by Thomas Paine, the book I was reading before getting sidetracked with Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Over the past year or so, I've been researching Thomas Paine for an upcoming dance collaboration between choreographer Edisa Weeks and her company Delirious Dances and myself and my group Numinous. The new work will be based on the writings of Thomas Paine (the "forgotten Founding Father") and will be part of a larger symposium we are planning on the meaning of democracy and freedom in today's world, particularly here in the United States. The premiere will be taking place in June 2010 here in New York City and I will be blogging more about the project in the weeks and months to come.
I suggested Thomas Paine to Edisa as a subject for collaboration but I'll admit at that time my knowledge of him was minimal beyond the basic outline of his life and some of his well-known aphorisms and quotes (for example, "these are the times that try men's souls" from American Crisis). But once we decided to do the project, I began reading up on his life and role in the founding of the United States, being particularly fascinated by the account of his legacy in Harvey Kaye's book Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Having been sufficiently maligned over the centuries by many specious rumors and writings especially after speaking out about religion and politics in The Age of Reason, today when people speak of the Founding Fathers, rarely is there mention of Thomas Paine and the effect this Briton and his thought had on the movement toward independence and democracy in the middle 18th century. And those thoughts, a call to action so to speak, are crystallized in Common Sense.
Common Sense is an open letter "addressed to the inhabitants of America." Reading it, my first thoughts were, had he lived today, Thomas Paine would definitely be a blogger of the first order. He gives passionate and reasoned arguments for why America should not be a colony of Britain, how a monarchy or any dependency can never achieve it's full potential, and why action (both political and military) is sometimes necessary in achieving and securing freedom. But one thing I was struck with is how in February of 1776 (5 months before the Declaration of Independence) Paine was able to articulate an impressively prescient vision of what America could possibly become ("we have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again").
And to the modern day constructionists that say all Founding Fathers felt America is "God's country" and religious thought is essential to governmental action, his answer to a long-forgotten Quaker rebuttal to not fight for independence should give ample pause for thought: "And here without anger or resentment I bid you farewell. Sincerely wishing, that as men and christians, ye may always fully and uninterruptedly enjoy every civil and religious right; and be, in your turn, the means of securing it to others; but that the example which ye have unwisely set, of mingling religion with politics, may be disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of AMERICA."
With hindsight, the correct course of action to independence seems preordained but I'm intrigued by how even something as monumentally important (and again with hindsight, obvious) as independence and freedom, was viewed by some as the wrong path to undertake. It is a helpful lesson of history to know there will always be (and should be) naysayers and doubters; that in a democracy questioning and debate is healthy and needed. But that we should be wary of all those "interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; prejudiced men, who will not see" and who will hold up and block progress for everyone because of parochial concerns (something the politicians in the recent imbroglio in the New York State Senate should have remembered). With Common Sense, Thomas Paine calls to action all citizens to be active not only in the discussion of democracy and freedom, but in the maintenance of it as well (although, I'm not sure he was meaning for women, slaves, or Native Americans but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt with the spirit of his words).
Next up for Summer Read #4: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 1:53 PM
Yesterday I read Nate Chinen's posting about this year's Chamber Music America New Jazz Works commissioning program and was planning to write a response, but then read an intriguing answer on NPR's A Blog Supreme and I wanted to take up one of the reactions posted on A Blog Supreme:
Someone must have something to say about the fact that none of the [Chamber Music America New Jazz Works] recipients this year are black. And that only a small handful in the past have been either. I by no means intend to suggest that the CMA is racist; if anything, I suspect it's a question of demographics in who's applying for these grants. (As a side note, many of the artists selected this year -- Rez Abbasi, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Jason Kao Hwang and Amir ElSaffar among them -- are from ethnic groups underrepresented in jazz.) This, of course, taps into a larger question about the paths that African Americans are taking in jazz and improvised music these days, and how those career trajectories may differ from the majority of artists who find themselves inspired by abstract expressionism or studying the hand drums of Central Asia or whatever. I am not qualified to elaborate on this; I hope someone else is.
While I certainly agree that the reasons for a lack of African-American grantees was probably more to do with who applied than anything else, the larger question posed of "the paths that African Americans are taking in jazz and improvised music these days" is a bit like why there are so few African-Americans in professional baseball after an honorable and distinguished history in the sport. Just as many black kids who might have picked baseball as their sport of choice now gravitate to basketball or football, I believe that many young African-American musicians will tend not toward jazz but to popular forms (rap, hip-hop, or nu soul), if they consider music at all, because they seem most validated and visible in terms of a broader cultural (and possible financial) relevance and sometimes as an acceptance in the black community as well.
Not that there aren't black musicians interested in abstract expressionism or Eastern cultures or rock or any other art form not typically considered black. Today, as there have almost always been, many African-Americans interested in traditionally non-black musical forms, both serious and arty and more popular (Earl Greyhound, TV on the Radio, Imani Winds, George Walker, Cowboy Troy, Darius Rucker, and I'll include myself in this list). Maybe a problem is how those musicians (and others) are valued or perceived both in the general and black public and press, not on the quality of their work. An on-going dialogue 'Ain't But a Few of Us: Black Jazz Writers Tell Their Story at The Independent Ear discusses the lack of coverage of black serious music by even the mainstream black press but I think it also focuses a light on what all press in general deem important, worth covering or probably more accurately, what the editors believe the readers want to read (actually A Blog Supreme's reaction #4 hints at this dilemma as well). With choice of what is covered denotes the perception of "importance" or "worthiness" and I think writer John Murph put it cogently for some African-American musicians in an interview on The Independent Ear when he says, "...there’s the whole idea of what is deemed more artistically valid when it comes to jazz artists incorporating contemporary pop music. I notice a certain disdain when some black jazz artists channel R&B, funk, and hip-hop, while their white contemporaries get kudos for giving makeovers to the likes of Radiohead, Nick Drake, and Bjork." Is Brad Mehldau better (more valid) than Jason Moran because the former covers songs from critically acclaimed alt-rock band Radiohead and the latter covered a song from proto-hiphop/electronica Afrika Bambaataa? This is of course a silly and wrong question (of course, the jazzers will agree that both are of high artistic merit). But how each artist is perceived by the cultural tastemakers, gatekeepers, and mavens, I think is a more interesting question.
Going back to Nate Chinen and A Blog Supreme's musings on the "grant monsters", those artists that are "grant-ready" who consistently get the funding for their projects, the more substantial question is how those grant monster's 'worth' is perceived by winning grants? My guess is that the perception of them changes when they win (and subsequently, those that don't win are perceived less favorably). Here I think of Steve Reich and his many years as Pulitzer-Prize runner-up. For me and most people, and probably to him, I don't think it mattered that he hadn't won. Disappointing, maybe. Affecting his own worth in new music circles, no. But once he did win, I think there was a subtle shift in the perception of him in others. Rightly or wrongly, award or grant winner (and any buzz surrounding it) can represent to some an air of officialness and validation. Then it DOES affect the future opportunities that musician will receive (much as Malcolm Gladwell talks about early, unseen advantages building up through time, in his book, Outliers). David Lang in an interview on NewMusicBox and Counterstream Radio humorously and candidly talks about this shift in the perceptions of him among others after winning the Pulitzer Prize last year (he even, quite honestly, talks about how he isn't immune himself to this perception game). Is Alfred Hitchcock any less worthy not winning an Oscar? John Stockton and Karl Malone in not winning a NBA championship? Carl Yaztrzemski, in not a World Series? The question isn't on the actual quality of their work, but rightly or wrongly, on the perception of others whether that work IS quality, based on what someone "official" says is quality or valid.
And whether something is perceived as quality hits on the head what I think because since the majority of tastemakers, gatekeepers, mavens are not black (or women), and often come from different socio-economic and educational backgrounds and experiences, maybe sometimes African-American musicians (or women) might not be as fully understood, valued, or appreciated as someone coming from the same background (see John Murph quote above). I think of some of the reactions to the OJ Simpson verdict in the different communities (for the record, I think he was guilty but I also understand the other side quite well), the reaction to Judge Sotomeyer's "wise Latina" remark, and of course the recent brouhaha over the Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates arrest, that all hinge on these different perceptions and thereby hindering full understanding of the other side (the New York Times Room for Debate blog has some interesting thoughts in the Professor Gates arrest as how the conscious and unconscious perceptions of both the professor and the officer contributed to the situation; like one of the experts, I, too have my own personal stories of questioning looks, stoppages, etc. from police and others).
The real question though is can we acknowledge our limitations with own 'cone of experiences' and have empathy and understanding on all sides? I would say, absolutely.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 6:40 PM
One of my summer projects this year is complete: building a fence and gate. Last summer I put up pre-made shadow-box fence panels on one side of the yard and while I didn't have to actually build the fence, I did have to dig and put up all of the posts and then set the panels in place. Since that was the first time I've ever done any building like that, it was a challenge (especially since I was doing it all alone). In addition to the pre-made panels, I also made a small gate from scratch. As per my tendency, beforehand I researched how to put up posts and how to build gates and fences, and constantly referred to websites, my building bible (my trusty book, Home Depot's Patios and Landscape Construction 1-2-3), and all of my measurements and plans. Of course things got better and better as I put up each post and panel. So much so that it got to a point I was finding myself using the book/websites less and less and relying on my own plans, intuition, and judgement; deviating from the plans based on what the situation dictated. And I must say, it all came out pretty well in the end.
This summer, I decided for another part of the yard to build a fence and gate completely from scratch as the old gate and fence were termite riddled and literally falling off the hinges. Again, I researched and consulted various websites and my "bible", but found with all of my building experience from the previous summer, I really only needed my detailed plans, which I was confident enough to improvise upon as necessary once work started.
Unlike last year, this summer during the deconstruction of the old fence and posts and construction of the new fence and gate, despite being a lot work (and again working alone), I found a calmness of mind during the process. And I was reminded of how similar building a fence and gate is to building a musical composition: planning the design, trying to balance an economy of form, function, and aesthetics; gathering materials; once you start building you need a special attention and focus to details which are important because the slightest miscalculation on any one part can lead to all being out of alignment; working through frustration, fatigue, set-backs and obstacles, especially as you get closer to finishing; joy and triumph (and relief) upon completion. As I'm writing various upcoming compositions for Numinous and other groups, I want to keep this summer's fence building lessons in mind: while it is important to be prepared, sometimes the greatest plan in your mind wants to be something else once it leaves your brain and meets reality; the challenge is to be patient and let it become what it will and hopefully it will all come out plumb.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 3:00 PM
Here's a poem from Percy Shelley that is apt for today's anniversary. Note: although I use it in reference to a photo of birds I saw, this poem is the origin of the title to the first part of Vipassana.
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 4:45 PM
Went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince yesterday (no, not the midnight showing-I don't do that anymore...). And while I have eagerly read and loved the books, I have been ambivalent about seeing the movies. In fact this was the first of the movies I have seen in the theatre and have only seen a couple of the previous films adaptations, well after their initial theatrical release. I think one reason I'm not so excited about the films is that they only hint at the fullness of the world JK Rowling created. Yes, film is a different medium and SHOULD be different than the books, but I often find myself missing the subtle nuances that are in the book. And sometimes, because there is only so much time to show things, you get (in my opinion) awkward breaks or gaps (I found that in all of the movies I've seen but an example in Half-Blood Prince is the scene where for the first time in the movie Dumbledore and Harry are talking about the recalled memories of Tom Riddle; this scene seemed to me to come about unprepared).
Don't get me wrong, I loved seeing how the director and creators of the film translate Rowling's words to visual images: the Qudditich scenes in Half-Blood Prince were quite thrilling and exciting and there are many beautifully composed shots, even some of the casual, quiet moments (a shot of Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Jenny just sitting, for example). I really did enjoy the movie but I also felt it more of an expositional penultimate place-holder for the ultimate finish in the next two planned movies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (I felt the same way after seeing Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones, it was all just a lead up to revealing Darth Vader in The Revenge of the Sith). It was also exciting to see that one of my former students was one of the 3D artists for Half-Blood Prince. When her name rolled across the credits at the end, I was happy and proud to know that she has done so well for herself.
One other thought after seeing the movie was that it made me realize once more what a wonderful creation JK Rowling came up with when she brought Harry Potter into the world. The books (and many parts of the movie) are such a richly detailed world, full of mystery, humor, fun, and tragedy, it makes me marvel at her imaginative acumen. In many ways, the epic sweep of the books create a totality that mimics the best of all myths and stories. In fact from the lightness of the first two books to the change to a darker, more ominous tone starting with The Prisoner of Azkaban, but more so in Goblet of Fire and the later books chronicling the "dark times", Harry Potter's journey reminds me of the classic enlightenment stories of so many cultures throughout the world. And that kind of creativity is very inspiring to me. Laurie Anderson in an interview said, "I feel that [a] work has really succeeded when somebody says, 'I saw or heard your piece and I got so many ideas from it'" and that good art work makes you "want to jump up and get out of there" and create something yourself. JK Rowling's Harry Potter is a reminder to me to go out and create my own musical worlds equally enriched, layered, textured, and memorable.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 12:00 PM
Here are my beginning of summer 'CDs I'm listening to':
Earl Greyhound (Soft Targets)
Phil Kline with Lionheart and Ethel (John the Revelator)
Dallas Wind Symphony (Lincolnshire Posy, Percy Grainger's Music for Band)
Bill Banfield Band (Spring Forward)
TV on the Radio (Dear Science)
David Lang with Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen (The Little Match Girl Passion)
Hans Rott (Symphony No. 1 and Orchestral Works)
Leela James (A Change is Gonna Come and Let's Do It Again)
Janelle Monáe (Metropolis: The Chase Suite, Special Edition)
I picked these CDs because (1) I know of the artist and was interested in hearing their new work (David Lang, Phil Kline), (2) I know of the artist but never actually heard them (Earl Greyhound, TV on the Radio), (3) I never heard of the artist before but decided to try after reading about them (Leela James, Janelle Monáe, Hans Rott), and (4) for no particular reason (Dallas Wind Symphony, Bill Banfield).
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:42 AM
Came across these two articles yesterday about Michael Jackson: while this Salon article is mostly about celebrity (Michael and Sarah Palin), the second a Village Voice article by Greg Tate about Michael's influence and legacy in the African-American community (thanks to Bold as Love for bringing the VV article to my attention).
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:21 AM
I had just started to read another book, when I was given Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers last week. Wanting to read it when it came out last year, my continually growing stack of "books to read" prevented me from adding it to the pile. So when I was given the book, I decided I would jump in and put the other book "on hold". I have not read Blink, Gladwell's second book, but I did read his first, The Tipping Point. And while I found myself engaged in the stories he presented in a very informal, breezy manner, I didn't always buy into the conclusions he came up with. Sometimes there are just too many variables to a situation to give a definite or even general pronouncement as he sometimes does. But whether I agreed with him or not, I found The Tipping Point thought-provoking and captivating reading (the story about Paul Reverie's ride and how the "other rider" that night generated little response was a classic) and hoped for the same with Outliers.
Before Outliers was published back in the fall of 2008, as always, all of the "cool" people were talking about it in newspapers, magazines, and on-line reviews and discussions--the buzz of Gladwell was in full force. I did read a little about the book back then so I did have an idea what to expect from the book when I started reading last week. But I definitely didn't expect my initial reaction as I began reading the first couple of chapters: anger.
The first chapters in Part One: Opportunities, The Matthew Effect (about hockey stars in Canada being born ONLY in January, February, and March) and The 10,000 Hour Rule (the aforementioned amount of time needed to complete mastery of a subject) seem to offer a deterministic attitude toward success, and if you don't fit in, then you won't be successful no matter what you do; your fate is decided! Now Gladwell, does not really say this. He just gives his conclusions from the available data, but this is the interpretation I came away with. When he says, "We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail...we overlook just how large a role we all play in determining who makes it and who doesn't" (pg. 32-33) here is where I think my anger came from. Not that there are successful people and some are and some aren't, it is what happens to those NOT considered successful and how they are seen/treated as just not working hard enough, or not talented enough, or just not having what it takes. Reading the rest of Part One, The Trouble with Geniuses (does being really smart convey that much of an advantage?) and The Three Lessons of Joe Flom (how being born in 1930, Jewish, and a practicing lawyer conveyed a opportunity in corporate law in the 1970's and 80's), I was reminded of The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner, one of my favorite all-time books.
The Beak of the Finch documents, through the work of scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant, how Darwin's theory of evolution is playing out in real and demonstrative ways in finches on the Galapagos Islands. One thing I remember from the book, was how the different beaks of the finches all are useful in different ways (one type might be good for opening hard shell nuts and not for soft shells while another is the opposite). And depending on all the interconnected conditions on the island (weather, nut production, predators, etc.), one type of finch may thrive and another won't. One set of skills leads to an advantage over another set, simply because of chance and circumstance. And here's an important point, there is no inherently "good" type of beak to have because you change the conditions (which does happen, with say a drought) and another type of finch becomes king. This is very similar to Joe Flom, who had certain skills which did not give him an advantage in one kind of world (1960's New York City corporate law), with the change of conditions his same skills now became very valuable in the new world.
While the successful generally do have to have the talent and ability (you have to be "talented enough", "smart enough"), the path to success often follows unseen advantages. Here is a wonderful interview with composer David Lang discussing how the Pulitzer Prize, which he won in 2008, has brought him opportunities he never would have had pre-Prize (listen for the funny and a bit discouraging story about wanting to write a piece for 1000 screamers in the street). And for me the interesting thing is he says he is no better composer now than before the Prize, but post-Prize others (critics, funders, orchestras, etc.) treat him differently; he is now a "serious" composer, more worthy of attention and opportunity! So for David Lang, his conditions changed, not who he is (although you could argue that now that he's won, he has changed), and so now he is a success (as if he wasn't before!).
There is a scene in Spike Lee's 1992 movie Malcolm X, when the young Malcolm, voted the class president by his white classmates, talks with his teacher about his desire to be a lawyer when he grows up. The teacher tells him he is good with his hands, maybe he should be a carpenter; a lawyer is no profession of a 'colored' boy. Outliers reminded me all of those who had similar conversations that discouraged or frustrated their possible achievement. What about those who didn't have the advantages, which in turn lead to opportunities, which lead to more opportunities, which can lead to success? Are they failures? Gladwell does lament what kind of world could we have if everyone could have equal chance for success. How many more Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would be out there, given the right stimulus, the right development, the right opportunities to "learn how to be an expert".
It doesn't mean everyone will succeed in being Bill Gates, it does mean we should create the atmosphere of the possible. And so as I began reading Part Two: Legacy, I became less angry as Gladwell begins to tell stories of what can be done to lead to success despite the obstacles and disadvantages. Harlan, Kentucky (how to end a generational cycle of violence), The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes (how cultural differences can be overcome), Rice Paddies and Math Tests (how success in math can be taught and is not preordained), Marita's Bargain (once middle schoolers humble life but outsized effort), and A Jamaican Story (the story of the Gladwell Family beginnings) were all more of a hopeful tone, showing what can be done to overcome fate and circumstances.
Here's a question I had throughout as I was reading, what about those people who are outliers to the outliers? What about those Canadian hockey all-stars NOT born in January, February, March? The low-income student with the terrible home life who nonetheless rises above the cycle of poverty? What drives those people to succeed against their circumstances, what help along the way do they receive? I thought of the movie Gattaca, where the Ethan Hawkes character, in a near-future world, has the attitude, desire and ability to be an astronaut despite not being of the 'right' genetic make-up. But it isn't until he gets help at the end, despite his talent and effort, that he is able to transcend into achieving his ultimate success. While Outliers has given me much to think about, like The Tipping Point, I do not always agree with Gladwell's conclusions. But one thing is clear from reading the book: while luck and fortune may favor the prepared, opportunity is a barn raised by many hands. And despite the commonly held (American) myth of the self-made person, "no one--not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses--ever makes it alone." (pg. 115) Something to always remember.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 12:21 PM
A few weeks ago I was interviewed for Texas Public Radio by the latest maven in the new music world, John Clare. His show, Classical Spotlight, includes interviews and recordings from some of the top performers, composers, and conductors in classical and new music today.
My interview, along with audio from Vipassana, will be broadcast tomorrow July 3rd at 3PM Eastern (2PM Central) on KPAC in San Antonio as part of John Clare's July 4th special on American music. If you miss it tomorrow, then you can listen to the archive on the Classical Spotlight website or check out their blog.
It was a fun time and I'm honored John chose me to be a guest for his July 4th special. I hope you get a chance to listen.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 1:51 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.