Friday, December 30, 2011

Dr. Faustus...or, who took the cult out of culture?

Thomas Mann, music lover

Reading Thomas Mann's "Dr. Faustus: The Life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, told by a friend" was a seminal event in my life. Now, I enjoy the occasional turgid and difficult read as much as the next girl, but that book sat on my bedside bookshelf for many a year before I dared crack it open. Mann's reputation as a dense and complicated writer frankly scared me off. 

At some point I gathered my courage and opened it up, though, and was immediately captivated. I'm fairly certain that had I read this novel as an undergraduate, I would have elected to become a Thomas Mann scholar. Mann manages to speak about music, the music I've immersed myself in as a violist/chamber musician/classical musician, in a way that ties together the personal, the political and the philosophical while spinning a harrowing yarn of choices gone wrong.

Of course, our hero strikes the Faustian bargain: twenty-four years of unheralded compositional brilliance in exchange for his soul. I don't feel a spoiler alert is required here. 

Tomes have been written analyzing this work, and this blog post is not going to pretend to be a scholarly contribution.

There is, however, an observation that I've been wanting to make. 

One facet of the book focuses on the isolation of the creative artist in Western culture. Beethoven, Goethe, Schoenberg and van Gogh would all be fine examples of this. The individual generative artist who lives apart from society to a certain extent, imagining worlds, in touch with the muse, but a tortured soul regarded as strange and "other" by his neighbors. 

There is a wonderful diatribe in Dr. Faustus about how music became divorced from tradition over the years culminating in late 19th/early 20th century Europe, particularly in Germany. A secondary character, a musicologist, expounds on how the "cult", meaning our deep religious, physical, social sense of connection through collective ritual and celebration was gradually erased from "culture" - rendering the musical arts an experience associated with thought, aesthetics, philosophy and high-mindedness (whatever that is!). The musicologist bemoans not only the loss of deep-rooted connection to a common experience, but also the tragedy of the individual composer's experience - cast away on his own deserted island of creativity.

Who took the cult out of culture?

The book becomes an elegy on the downfall of German culture in the 20th century through which we can appreciate the tragedy of the German people and Nazism, and not just the horror. 

I recently watched Werner Herzog's stunning "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" on my computer (therefore, sadly, no 3D for me). This brilliant film is not only about the gorgeous cave painting in the Chauvet Caves of France, but is a meditation on the human experience circa 30,000 years ago. There are beautiful dialogues with the archeologists who painstakingly research the artifacts and paintings in and around the caves and lovingly immerse themselves in imagining lost worlds - seeking to connect with states of mind from pre-history. 

One of the scientists recounts a latter-day experience with an Australian aboriginal who leads him on a tour of rock paintings around the Australian Outback. The aboriginals, whose artistic methods had remained unchanged since the Stone Age until around the 1970's, were in the habit of restoring colors and damaged bits of paintings when they happened upon one another's work. As the scientist and the aboriginal encountered a painting in need of fixing and the man set about his work, the scientist asked him what he was painting. The reply: "I am not painting; it is the spirit who is painting."

This is such a beautiful example of shared spirit, a so-called "primitive" awareness of connection to the muse. We, in Western culture, are hungry and yearning for commonality. There's a lot to recover.

On a side note, flutes made from bone have been found at these French archeological sites. When replicated, they are found to play a pentatonic scale. I am imagining 30,000 year old pentatonic melodies and time is melting away.

Cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger composed the deeply moving score to Herzog's film. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is worth listening to as much as being watched. Here's about fifteen minutes of live performance from the score. This music sounds as modern as it does ancient. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Butch Morris and the anacrusis.

A little over a year ago I met one of this earth's great musicians, Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris. He's also a fine example of a human being. He's the kind of guy who always carries a little notebook around and writes down his ideas as they hatch, for future reference and sharing. Butch has been a cornetist, composer, Vietnam vet...and since 1985 has led "Conduction" gatherings. I had the great musical privilege of working with and learning from Butch in his Seattle workshop and performance at the Cornish College of the Arts.

Conduction, a term he coined for musical purposes, is a means of guiding a group improvisation. Not limited to dynamics and speed, he has invented hand gestures that can capture melodic material, indicate accompaniment and set up a structure involving development and repeats. I believe there are five different kinds of repeats!

Butch Morris at Cornish, 2010
Butch resides in New York and works with certain musicians there, but he also travels the world leading mixed groups in his Conduction workshops. By mixed, I mean that he prefers to assemble folks who wouldn't normally be in an ensemble together: orchestral players alongside jazz musicians alongside rock drummers, folk singers, accordionists, you name it.

Here's what Butch has to say about musical commonality:

"As musicians, we all share a common language. We may speak in different dialects, vocabularies, categories or styles, but the language is music. Whatever the tradition from which it springs, music has certain intrinsic properties beyond harmony, melody and rhythm. Although these properties may ultimately resist analysis, music will always allow musicians to communicate from vastly differing perspectives."

His aim is to get everybody off their normal musical modus operandi and move toward truly listening and responding. To let go of the big solo jazz ego. To get away from the virtuosic lick. To depart from genre-based clichés. 

Butch considers himself to be the improviser and the ensemble to be the instrument. You might be tempted to think that sounds a lot like Gustav Mahler's monomaniacal vision of himself as the artiste before the music workers o' the orchestra, but because Butch's system of gestures invite each individual to develop their own idea, including choice of pitches, rhythms, inflections, etc. within the designated structural framework a creative environment ensues where Butch is not dictator but leader, and the musicians are organized in a way that propels them beyond ego to common cause. Even as some players are designated soloists and others accompanists. The thing is, you never know in advance which you might be.

So what about the anacrusis?

Here's a Merriam-Webster definition of anacrusis: "one or more notes or tones preceding the first downbeat of a musical phrase." In other words, a pick-up note, or notes.

In Butch's parlance, though, the anacrusis becomes an extended means of making shape and expression within the phrase. The implementation of an anacrusis indicates the musician's awareness of gathering up energy to point to the arrival in a phrase...a phrase that they are inventing on the fly. So that improvisation is not a matter of "let your fingers do the walking" as my good friend Philippe describes it, but an immersion in the shape of space, with docking stations, flight paths and all that built in.

In other words, how you start, where you're going and what you do when you get there. Sounds like a winning formula for making a phrase come alive, and one that classical musicians and teachers could have a lot of fun with.

The anacrusis talk got me thinking about the term 'appoggiatura', too, and I'm developing my own definition for the musical implications of leaning. But that is for another post and another day.

By the way, my Seattle colleague, the stunning violinist/composer/dancer/improviser Paris Hurley, who also played the Cornish show back in 2010, blogged about Butch on the Degenerate Art Ensemble's website as a guest writer - post from 23rd Nov. 2011.

Addendum, post-publication: HERE is a BBC news clip where you can hear Butch talk about Conduction and see him explain some of the gestures to a group of musicians who have sheet music in front of them - a rarity in the scope of his performances.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gidon speaks out

Gidon Kremer
Gidon Kremer, violin hero and champion of new music for many decades now, has released two letters (one included here) detailing his frustration with the trend toward the "celebritization" of classical musicians. His complaints about fêting "rising stars" and name-dropping at the famous Verbier Festival are making the Internet rounds.

From his comments: "...all of us have something to do with the poisonous development of our music world, in which “stars” count more than creativity, ratings more than genuine talent, numbers more than…. sounds."

I have been thinking about the marketing error which hasn't done our music world any favors; namely, the tendency to conflate the experience of attending a classical concert with being blown away by a rock show. Be dazzled by superstars! Conductors! Soloists! Perhaps in revealing designer gowns! Head-banging and long hair! And even laser light shows. Check out the youTube Symphony Orchestra vids

What I'm missing is the acknowledgment of the individual composer's voice: the person who works largely alone, assembling the sounds that fills his mind and heart into meaningful structures; the musician who sorts what's worthy of staying on the page, struggles with what's meaningful, what's do-able, what deserves to be written and heard, what is schlocky and irrelevant, what may seem banal, but won't get out of her head anyway, and therefore should find its place in the score; the artist whose ideas can only be expressed through his own unique use of musical language.

I actually think this person is as vital to our democratic freedoms as the novelist or the poet. These people wrestle with the ambiguity of reality. A good novel has no stock characters or predictable outcomes. It is an exploration of a story that reveals the many sides of truth and allows the reader to ponder his or her own assumptions. The innermost thoughts of an artist, channeled into his work, reveal the complexity of sorting and sifting it all. This is the opposite of holding black and white views: a practice that makes a blunt instrument of politics.

Great music, which comes from a composer's struggle with his own inner soundscape, is ultimately about us. Creating a personal grammar, an individual sense of inflection, devising structures, conjuring sound colors, imagining worlds that have never existed...these are all in the realm of the composer's charge. As one of my favorite living composers, Osvaldo Golijov, (hear Dawn Upshaw singing "How Slow the Wind") says: music has "the power to build castles of sound in our memories." The truths that these artists uncover have the power to remain in our own hearts, memories and minds, revealing something of ourselves to ourselves. Music causes us to perceive differently, and that is to our benefit.

As a kid, when I was feeling alienated, I often thought of Brahms as my best friend. I wonder how many other people have felt this kind of kinship with another soul through their music? I just think that promoting the performer above the touching of consciousness to consciousness, composer to listener, debases that primary relationship.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Confronting stupid, with thanks to Seth Godin

Seth Godin aims high
Every morning, I get a new post from Seth Godin in my inbox. For those of you familiar with him, I would wager that you've appreciated his wit and insight into the nature of the new economy, what kind of work will be needed from us in the future, and how we can meet the challenges of a drastically and rapidly change global scene. While his comments are coming from a marketing/tech point of view, I have found his words potently germane to my profession.

Here is today's post, in its entirety:

"Some gigs are process oriented: Set up a process correctly and the rest takes care of itself. It's challenging and frightening to get it right, but after that, you merely have to do the hard work of showing up each day. Do the work and you'll get the results.
Other jobs require a different sort of hard work: the guts to be wrong, a confrontation with the risk of being stupid.
The comedian who fears that each new joke might fail, the writer who has to say something new, the leader who must improvise, solving new problems on a regular basis. What makes this work hard is that it might not work.
More and more people now have jobs that require them to confront the risk of appearing stupid on a regular basis."

My friend who performs with the Oregon Symphony has been telling me about her term for section string players: "tutti swine". While this may seem derogatory to section string players, it is in fact a gallows humor jab from a consummate insider: an orchestral position can be all risk and no reward.

In Godin's example of confronting "the risk of appearing stupid on a regular basis" he presupposes the silver lining that a person just might get it right and reap the benefit of seeming actually quite clever, thereby proceeding, possibly, to scaling up a business plan, making money, having a platform for trotting out new ideas or products, becoming well known, or whatever the next step may be. In an orchestra, once you've won the highest position/chair there is, there is no opportunity for advancement or larger voice in the shaping of the ensemble, artistically speaking. 

In orchestral life it is utterly unacceptable to appear stupid. That is, the player who misses notes, plays out of sync with the section, aims high musically but doesn't quite succeed, will stick out of the larger texture, call attention to himself, and be on the short list for a pink slip. There isn't room for "it might not work" in an orchestra.

To pursue the comparison further, out of a sense of self preservation, an orchestral musician would be well-advised to choose Option 1: set up a process correctly, and show up each the work and get the results. This actually works to a certain extent in an orchestra. Musicians these days are exquisitely trained professionals with extraordinarily fine techniques to rely on. Trouble is, music is not automation. It's a human need, and musicians go into the field because they feel music so deeply, so inextricably as part of their identities.

Can you imagine automating your identity?

The orchestral musicians I know are far from callous beings. They are sensitive, highly trained artists who are doing their best to play at a high level under daunting work conditions. Today, Greg Sandow, who writes about the current state of classical music, quotes extensively from a report authored by Robert Levine, Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. His searing remarks link the myth of the omniscient conductor to the culture of infantilization within the ranks of the orchestra.

Sandow's larger question is how this squelching of artistic identity within the orchestra is linked to the trouble the classical world finds itself in today. That would be evidenced by the folding of many ensembles, the recent bankruptcy filing of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the extended strike at the Detroit Symphony, declining audiences, etc.

So I do ask these questions: Does the rankist (see definition by Robert W. Fuller) symphony orchestra model need to change to reflect our current democratic sensibilities? Do conductors need to change the way they view their job description? Are orchestras squandering their most precious resource, namely the artistry and creative vision of their musicians? Is there a way to make room for risk-taking within the ranks without jeopardizing the artistic cohesion of the ensemble?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Getting in touch with your Inner Punk.

Flux of Pink Indians

I was never part of the punk scene. The music is too loud and I am not an anarchist at heart. But we classical musicians are missing something in our esthetic.  Punk screams from its own primal creative soup. I am of the belief that it exists in classical compositions - Beethoven was way punk. Listen to the Grosse Fuge. It screams. Check out Bartok's Fourth String Quartet or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. 

I spend a lot of time teaching music. It can be wonderful, and it can be challenging. My students are lovely people, and I enjoy them very much. It takes anyone a ton of devotion, time and work to learn an instrument and they are definitely stepping up to the plate. But it's hard as a teacher to guide them on the path to finding their musical identities, while simultaneously equipping them with the requisite technical skills to support their musicianship.

Balance can be hard to achieve. Some teachers emphasize technique so much that their students seem to have seriously underdeveloped musical sensibilities. On the other hand, students who go out into the musical world (professional world is what I'm thinking) without adequate technical preparation are going to experience severe career disappointments.

I think about musicians on the other side: non-classical, non-conservatory-trained musicians who taught themselves guitar, wrote songs in their bedrooms, learned some chords on a keyboard and sang along...and I think sometimes all of our training to do things at a really high level can get in the way. For instance, I know a lot of superb instrumentalists who are too scared to try improvising. I know I was. It took me six weeks of going to jazz lessons with David Balakrishnan before I was no longer experiencing abject terror at the notion of improvising two bars of music. And for all the immersion in great music we have, very few of us ever try our hand at composing or even arranging.

Back to the students. I try very hard to get my students to play technically correctly, because good technique is what makes it easier to play well. And playing well is the goal, yes? But I wonder if there's something of putting the cart before the horse here. Long ago, I taught a little girl violin. She was a lefty and a real cutie pie, starting at age 5. She came into her second violin lesson and absolutely ripped through the first Twinkle variation. She probably broke a few hairs on that micro-bow, if you know what I mean. She was punk. She struggled to get a handle on technical issues that didn't come as easily as for other students, especially bowing, which, for a lefty, is sometimes counter-intuitive. But she pushed her way through and today is a professional violinist who performs on both modern and baroque instruments.

It's one thing for a youngster like her to show up at age 5 with all that uninhibited verve to tame and focus, but what about older students? Fifth and sixth graders who are just starting out but who are already aware of the need to do things "the right way"? Can we teachers open the door to that room where their inner punk dwells? Do they need to find that door themselves? Or should we be simply giving students permission to explore what's in there? Maybe just knowing it's good to explore is all that is needed. 

Finally, I would like to offer this video  from violinist Nigel Kennedy, who once described the essence of it all as being "animal". When was the last time you saw a performance like this in a concert hall?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Three Levels of Knowing

Architect Matthew Frederick

Returning from St. Martin, I stopped over in Chicago to get some repairs done on my viola (kudos to violinmaker supreme Michael Darnton!), and had some hours free to roam the streets. There's a place I love across from the Art Institute called the Chicago Architecture Foundation - they sponsor tours of local buildings, offer lectures and classes, and they have a fun shop full of books and cool design-ware. My younger son is thinking about going into design of some sort, and I spotted a book called "101 Things I Learned in Architecture School"for him. Flipping through it, I could see it was a keeper. I think my husband and I have spent more time taking in its pearls of wisdom than our 13 year old, but that's another story.

Author Matthew Frederick shares his insights, one per page with a facing illustration, on topics as wide-ranging as how to draw a line, the need to express zeitgeist, or the relative width (in inches) of summer people versus winter people. Page 45 is titled "Three levels of knowing", and I have been playing with this idea in my mind for weeks now.

Here is what Frederick writes:

"SIMPLICITY is the world view of the child or uninformed adult, fully engaged in his own experience and happily unaware of what lies beneath the surface of immediate reality.

COMPLEXITY characterizes the ordinary adult world view. It is characterized by an awareness of complex systems in nature and society but an inability to discern clarifying patterns and connections.

INFORMED SIMPLICITY is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded upon an ability to discern or create clarifying patterns within complex mixtures. Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect, who must create a highly ordered building amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations."

I love this summation of the evolution of awareness. It offers a great framework for considering education, for assessing where a person is at in the course of a project or a creation, or as a way of evaluating musical compositions.

It's an interesting lens through which to view 20th century classical music (yes, I still use the moniker "classical" to define 1000 years of multi-genre, multi-national music). Schoenberg and his tradition-busting 12 tone system cleared the way for some extremely complex compositions. In fact, in many universities, composition students were obliged to embrace complexity and shun vestiges of tonality. Serial approaches that determined not only sequences of pitches, but also durations of notes and dynamics certainly had at their core an iron-clad guiding principle, but could be extremely difficult for a listener to make sense of. As a music student in the 80's I remember playing a lot of student compositions that required me to do mathematical computations to figure out exactly how that measure was supposed to line up. Unfortunately, in too many cases a lack of clarifying pattern and connection often rendered the performing experience woefully unsatisfying. Complexity for the sake of avoiding simplicity is a misguided impulse.

As a side note, I would like to state that I find Schoenberg's own music tremendously compelling. His students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, were masters as well and composed music that is tightly conceived and emotionally rich.

As the century wore on, the backlash against complexity crystallized around minimalism. Composers like Phillip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams wove long musical tapestries from tiny bits of material. Glass is sometimes accused of being boring and simplistic. Having performed several of his string quartets I can say from experience that they are highly effective works that galvanize the listener's attention as the pieces traverse their long arcs. There is a cohesive architecture in play, with truly powerful climaxes and resolutions.

The problem is, the door had now been opened to legitimize dabbling in "faux-minimalism": music that uses but a few chords and lacks a larger vision. I hear too many compositions nowadays that use little and convey little. A simplistic musical view that fails to reach any depth isn't going to do much for the soul.

Grappling with complexity may be a necessary step for emerging from the adolescence of simplicity, whether in the game of life or of music.

May we all have the opportunity to grow through these stages and emerge as informed beings!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Remembering Bill Whitson and PACO

Ten years since his too-early passing from cancer, the tributes are pouring in via Facebook. I have a notoriously horrible memory for events and details from my childhood, but it’d be impossible to overstate the impact that Mr. Whitson and his brainchild organization, the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra (PACO) had on my musical life.
Mr. Whitson, our illustrious leader, violinist, teacher, conductor, resident philosopher, football coach, fishing guru and mensch, was not a man to be trifled with. In his five-tiered orchestra, we learned from the time we were in our single digit years that we’d better not ever act like fools to be suffered. A few stern words were enough to scare us into practicing, taking responsibility, seeing the forest and not just the trees. I love the several references to Bill’s utterance of the word “Beethoven”. No, not “beethoven”... “BEETHOVEN”....I can still hear it, and see the terror-inspiring look in his eye.
Possessed of preternaturally rubbery jowls and heavy brow, he appeared as a twentieth century embodiment of something resembling Mozart, Bach and Beethoven rolled into one rather imposing presence. And yet, Mr. Whitson cared deeply about us youngsters. Probably because he cared so deeply about humanity. I think he didn’t care so much about people’s individual circumstances as he did about the great potential humanity possesses. The potential to create, to be generous, to interact in meaningful ways. To challenge ourselves beyond what we would have thought possible.
These days, there is a lot of motivational speaking that goes on about this kind of thing. You can buy self-help books or attend seminars of varying durations. It can all be a bit annoying, as one could suspect the speakers of being more involved with self-glorification, or the sound of their own voices, than with helping others. But Mr. Whitson was deeply motivational to us as a matter of course. He believed in the power of music to change lives, certainly, but mostly he believed in music itself and the absolute truth that it speaks about our humanity and even our connection to the divine. 
He was never trite or patronizing. Not even for one moment. If he philosophized, it was always with a vaguely ironic look and a half-smile, probably with one eyebrow raised, so as to note that one ought not go down the road of taking one’s own thoughts too seriously. After all, there were more important matters at hand. Like making that chord in the Beethoven symphony convey the full intensity and gravitas of the composer’s intentions. Or allowing the ending of that Mozart phrase to waft seamlessly into the ether. An improper bump at the end of a classical phrase was no less than a crime - evidence that our minds and hearts were in the wrong place, or worse, on vacation. His unshakable expectation was that we would play our music with utter commitment, at all times. It perplexed him that anyone would ever play with less than 100% involvement.
Coupled with his belief that music is a social art, he forged in our minds the idea that we had the stars to reach for when we drew the bow across the strings, and that we were doing nothing less than creating a human paradise through our music-making.
Rest in peace, Mr. Whitson, and thank you for all you gave.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bartok in the Caribbean

ODEONQUARTET returned from a week in the small French/Dutch island of St. Martin/St. Maarten a few days ago. This was a trip made possible by the collaboration of many folks in different locations, all devoted to the idea of bringing chamber music to the island.
You would think that a lighter program, perhaps some Philip Glass, Ljova, maybe some shorter works, would have been just the ticket, but we got the message that they wanted a real meat and potatoes program. So it was that we played a movement from the American composer George Rochberg’s Sixth String Quartet, the entire first Bartok quartet, and the incomparably beautiful Beethoven Op. 59, No. 1 quartet, which is the first of his “heroic” period quartets and clocks in at about 45 minutes.
Having flown in from Seattle, where we’d been hailed upon of late, and were in...oh...about our sixth month of yearly gray gloom, and emerging into the intense Caribbean sunlight was actually a little bewildering for me, at first. The sun tracks directly overhead and it is surprisingly humid. It wasn’t until a bit later that I discovered the delicious wonderment that is a warm Caribbean breeze. It just really never gets cold enough, even in the shade, even at night, to feel chilly. Sitting under an umbrella or on a shaded porch overlooking the ocean is simply a delight that I won’t soon forget. The soft breezes carry a silken warmth that feels like a guilty pleasure to this Pacific Northwesterner. 
All this new-found hedonism did not necessarily put me in the frame of mind for the tale of angst-y unrequited love that is Bartok’s First Quartet. Furthermore, the last movement is Bartok’s first instance of trotting out formalized folk material, and he uses this first foray into the technique to spin out pages and pages of ever more intense and relentless Carpathian Basin musical madness. One friend refers to the piece as a “tapeworm”. So this was the odd thing: our mission was to perform and bring this music to a new audience, but here we were, on the beach, experiencing the unveiling of bare skin for the first time in 2011. What’s a violist to do?
The answer, of course, is the same as always: focus, and be professional. It meant a bit less relaxing and unwinding in vacation mode, more time in the air-conditioned hotel room doing some warming up and practice, and less time doing tourist activities. Honestly, I think it was a very nice balance, as we had two entirely free days. We went on a hike one day, and drove around the island on another, stopping in at the various towns and beaches, getting French pastries and trying to stay out of the sun. It is probably true that I’m more constitutionally suited to being inside, practicing, performing, writing, teaching...but it was a delight to visit.
The most gratifying moment for me, personally, was meeting the middle-aged black man, toothless and wearing his abundant hair tucked up into a knit cap, whose friends had chipped in to buy him a ticket to our concert. It was the first time he’d heard a string quartet, the first time he’d heard Bartok, the first time he’d heard of or seen a viola. He was absolutely enthralled and his excitement about the performance and the music was deeply moving. Talking to him after the concert was truly an honor.
Additionally, two girls who played the violin wanted to get some advice on how to hold and use the bow properly. I took a deep breath and tried to tell them everything I could in a few minutes about general bow technique principles. They seemed incredibly enthused and I was grateful for the opportunity to be helpful.
Wonderful trip.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Massenet's "Don Quichotte"

The Man of La Mancha and Sancho Panza

Last night I went to see the opera. It was Massenet’s Don Quichotte, presented by Seattle Opera. I confess to have been a little irked at the opening: why so much funding lavished on the opera, when other arts organizations go without? why do I have to sit through yet another big stage production of a party scene? why is this music so worn out and banal...?
And yet, as the evening wore on, and the opera pared itself down to a loving examination of the old knight’s noble, yet misguided intentions, I found myself moved. At the beginning of each act, the scrim in front of action displayed a hand scripted excerpt from Cervantes’ work (in English, of course)...the final quote was (roughly) “it is madness to have too much sanity - to see life as it really is and not as it ought to be.”
The brave old knight reminds me that looking through rose-colored glasses is sometimes the only truth worth pursuing...

Agata Zubel and the wisdom of women

Last week I had the distinct privilege of hearing Agata Zubel, Polish singer and composer, perform with the Seattle Chamber Players.
Agata Zubel

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about all the women who went up in smoke courtesy of the Christian church's assertion that they were witches who needed saving...this is, of course, hundreds of years ago, and those of us who are products of the European Judeo-Christian tradition can rest assured that we've gotten over that sort of thing, as regards women. Except that those efforts so long ago did serve to wipe out the matrilinear conveyance of the so-called womanly arts: healing traditions, a mystical connection to nature, midwifery, knowledge of medicinal herbs...and countless rituals I'm sure I know nothing about.

The upshot is that the learning and passing on were arrested in their tracks, and replaced with a fear, among women, of practicing these arts: a fear of being authentically womanly. This is what I was discussing with my friend, and I must admit that it's a new way of looking at women's history, for me. I've been turning it over in my mind all week. It's a plausible explanation for our male-dominated culture - I don't mean to say that women don't have all kinds of fantastic opportunities in 21st century American society - we do! And I'm incredibly grateful to be alive here and now rather than, say, Iran.

So, when I went to hear the spectacular Agata Zubel sing last week, all these thoughts had been percolating in my mind for a while. Witnessing her performance was a stunning experience. She draws on a deep spirituality and complete commitment to the moment as she performs. It feels like each sound she creates resonates in every molecule of her existence.

Her first work was a Berio Sequenza...she strode onto the stage already muttering under her breath, stood before her music stand still chattering to herself for a few moments before suddenly gawping at the audience, as though she suddenly realized we were staring at her, too. The sounds in the Sequenza ranged from Bushman-like clicks to mad laughter, chattering like I'd imagine a schizophrenic cacophony of internal voices would sound, to the occasional loving and gorgeous melodic line. Her command and control of all these cascading and colliding effects was virtuosic in the extreme.

Her own compositions are filled with space and silence, little sounds at the extremes of her vocal registers, microtones, great swooping gestures, and the occasional intelligible phrase.. a sonic depiction of a deeply personal inner landscape. Or an examination of a psychology played out in real time. The effect was mesmerizing and disturbing. And it was extremely compelling. I felt I was witness to this amazing musician's private, highly organized yet vulnerable inner world.

There was a piece on the program which was about a dream that Hildegard of Bingen experienced - that Europe was to be engulfed by a Muslim invasion. It was during this song, full of searing microtonal tension, that I had the thought that Agata Zubel would not have been appreciated during the time of the various witch trials, whether in Salem or Spain or elsewhere in Europe. She is a woman deeply connected to a spiritual or otherworldly place, serving to allow her listeners to journey to potentially uncomfortable inner spaces.

I found her work utterly inspiring, and am continuing to ponder my sisters, lost so long ago, and what knowledge may have perished with them. But we are fortunate to live in a world where the work of Agata Zubel is not only possible, but celebrated and cherished.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jherek Bischoff, Ambient Chamber Orchestra and the cistern

Jherek Bischoff, the Ambient Chamber Orchestra and the cistern.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture...” something my husband, Kurt, says from time to time, though it’s actually someone else’s quote. So if you’re trying to learn about ambient music, a brief trot through cyber links will quickly lead a person, amusingly enough, to learn of the French composer Erik Satie’s “furniture music” - so-named by Satie himself because it could as easily drift into the background of a dinner party as the furniture. Satie, according to the sites I visited, (check out is unanimously considered the originator of ambient music.
Last night I had the pleasure of performing with Jherek ( as a violist in the Ambient Chamber Orchestra at the Chapel Performance Space. I met Jherek pretty recently and ran into him not too long after at the Deep Listening Band’s phenomenal “Great Howl at Town Hall” where this iconic group, whose members include Pauline Oliveros and Stuart Dempster, two personal musical heroes of mine, played a simply amazing show inspired by the extraordinary echo in the 2 million gallon now-empty water cistern underground at Fort Worden State Park. At 45 seconds, it is a crazy-long musical hang time.
The cistern, dubbed “Washington’s Official Instrument”, has become popular among recording artists as a great natural acoustic site. If you want to record there, you have to get a permit from the park - one paragraph of the application reads:
“The cistern is defined as a "confined space" by Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. It does not meet any of the safety requirements established by that agency. It does not have a "safe" access hatch, does not have a "safe" ladder, and to be legally correct the air quality (oxygen levels, etc.) must be tested before entry and then monitored during any occupation.”
And you have to have an above-ground contact person waiting with cell phone in hand at the opening in case of emergency!
Evidently, it is not only the long echo but also the way that sounds ping off of the pillars, reinforcing, reflecting and canceling out harmonies that provides a singularly remarkable musical environment.
Jherek got a residency at Fort Worden’s Centrum, the famous arts center, and was able to compose music in the cistern. The result was the music we presented last night.
I didn’t know that much detail about ambient music, except that my two sons are into electronic dance music, so I did a rather cursory investigation, aided in part by Wikipedia, and here is what I learned.
· Ambient music prioritizes instrumental timbres over vocals, or if it does use vocals, focuses on the quality and types of sounds produced rather than lyrics.
· Erik Satie and Claude Debussy were the forerunners of this music, as they busted apart older musical forms that were narrative in nature to create much more open and spacious forms.
· John Cage’s 4’33” is considered a seminal work as it encouraged listeners to open their ears to sounds in the present environment.
· Karlheinz Stockhausen’s early work with tape collages was a precursor to modern digital sampling.
· Bands like the Beatles and Pink Floyd explored the studio capabilities of electronic music - distancing themselves from the dominance of lyrics and opening up the rich instrumental possibilities of rock music.
· Ambient musicians don’t like being conflated with New Age, which they consider bland and banal.
· Brian Eno’s “Airport Music” is big in the ambient world.
· Minimalist composers like Philip Glass and John Adams, though their music is not specifically ambient, inspired bands with their exploration of musical repetition over vast expanses of time.
· Everyone should check out the Velvet Underground. Also Tangerine Dream and Moby.
· Downtempo electronic dance music like house, progressive, techno, trance and psy-trance, hip hop, breakbeat and electronic dub are contemporary iterations of ambient music. I only have visibility to this music through my kids, who are big devotees (though they, I believe, have extremely specific tastes within these genres.)
Lastly, I really enjoyed seeing some listed examples of ambient music. Some I’ve already experienced, and some I’m looking forward to hearing for the first time.
Here’s my edited list:
Movie soundtracks:
Forbidden Planet
2001, a Space Odyssey
Clockwork Orange
Blade Runner
Donnie Darko
Lost in Translation
The Social Network
Erik Satie
John Cage
György Ligeti
Nine Inch Nails
NASA (Voyager recordings - “Symphonies of the Planets”)
Brian Eno
Anyway, the Chapel was packed and it was a beautiful show. Glad to have been part of it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

4 stages of learning a piece.

I've been teaching and performing for many decades now, and I've realized that in too many instances, students get stuck at a certain level of musical preoccupation. I wanted to articulate a little more clearly what seems to be the learning arc when coming to terms with a piece of music. So I wrote up this list of 4 stages of learning a new piece. Because I'm obsessed with anagrams, you will see that the four steps form a call to action...

Here 'tis:

Learning a piece of music: four stages.

I. Discovery

this is the initial phase of encountering a piece of music: hearing it, sightreading, noticing moments of beauty, confusion, or interesting character. getting a sense for the challenges that lie ahead in the learning process, finding commonalities with other music, identifying personal technical difficulties and areas of incomprehension.

II. Organization

the practical phase. making sure you are playing all the correct pitches and rhythms. working out articulation. developing technical skills necessary to serving the specific piece. finding the right tone of voice to convey the character of the music. crafting phrases and seeking to create the right texture of sound.

III. Ingestion

this is the deep emotional work. memorizing not only the sequence of notes but also the dramatic landscape of the music. this work may be done away from the instrument, visualizing the unfolding of the score. it may occur while doing a run-through of a section of the work. this is when the musician makes the piece a part of his or her own being. listening to other recordings may be helpful, but forgetting recordings may also be necessary, so as to cultivate the musician’s own voice. this is when all the carefully worked out details coalesce into a larger whole, and the music seems to become “of a piece”, or singularly cohesive. this work can be done alone, with a teacher, and/or with colleagues.

IV. Transference

this is when you get to share this new part of your being with your lucky listeners! you have done all the hard work of studying the score, teaching yourself new ways of listening, moving and being, and you are now an authentic agent of this particular work. as you stand (or sit) before your audience, trust yourself and focus on the moment. you don’t need to worry about that hard part coming up: you’ve put in the work and internalized what you need to do to be able to execute that difficult passage. allow irrelevant thoughts or nervous mental chatter to fall by the wayside and just play your instrument. and don’t forget to smile at the audience when they reward your great work with enthusiastic applause!

What would you add? It seems to me that too much of the teaching process focuses on stage II.