Writing About Music . . .

. . . is like dancing about architecture.  (Martin Mull)

This quote has been rattling around in my mind quite frequently as of late.  You see, amidst all the activity that is composition, and all the activity that surrounds that work (classroom visits, site maintenance, recording and mixing, etc., etc., etc.,) comes the search for the next project.

As a new composer fresh out of grad school, I had the chance to ask a fellow composer for his insight into this full-time, freelancing career.  He gave me some valuable advice, including the hard truth that I couldn’t depend on any sort of linear progress in my career.  As nice as it would be for one opportunity to lead to the next, and the next, and then the next, that isn’t how it works.  You have to cast a web, the wider the better, and explore every little tug that you feel.  Some things will pan out, others won’t, but it’s pretty much a given that there will be very few direct lines between events.

So when I’m not busily composing away, I’m usually looking for the next chance to compose.  Lately, there seems to have been a spate of potential commissions popping up.  And what they all have in common is something I’ve come to dread:  The Proposal.

On the one hand, I get it.  These organizations will likely be getting quite an influx of applications for these various commissions, and in order to ensure the awardee best fits their goals is to learn as much about them in as compact a package as possible.

But “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  Trying to describe in words what is, at least for me, an emotional and rather intangible process is difficult, almost bordering on impossible.  Not to mention the fact that the listener’s visceral response to my music may be quite different than my own intention.

One of my earliest works garnered a huge compliment from a friend, who described one section of the work that moved him to great joy.  Yet the section he found joyous was one that was quite dark in my view.  Although my intention in the composition process was different, I realized that he wasn’t wrong in his interpretation.  Because he experienced the work through his senses, colored by his life experiences, it led him down a different path than I had taken.

This was a real learning experience for me, and I realized that once I set my music loose, I could no longer control how it was presented and perceived.  As a result, I have learned to keep my program notes quite spare and sparse, giving only a loose framework so listeners are free to hear the music on their own terms.  When I find myself reading program notes that are very complex and technical, incredibly detailed in what the composer expects the listener to hear and feel, I often become frustrated.  Ultimately, if I don’t “hear” the work exactly as the composer describes, I find myself struggling to simply accept what I am hearing without critiquing the composer’s intention.

This is even more difficult when the composer seems to have generated their program notes with the help of this.  (Go to enough new music concerts, and you’ll see these are not so far-fetched.)  I am simultaneously amazed and disheartened when I read a program note that reads almost like a page from my brother’s doctoral thesis on aeronautical engineering.

The manner in which composers present themselves and represent their works is what a potential commissioner has available to make their judgment.  While it would be nice to think they will go to every single composer’s site and listen to most of their catalog of music, it’s not practically feasible, especially when the applicant pool is very large.  But while you are reading through your proposals, sifting through the descriptions that range from mind-numbingly technical to vague, generic “oooh, pick me” pleas, I encourage you to keep in mind a couple of things.  First, I express myself and my soul in music because that’s a better, truer view of me than anything I could say in words.  And second, the ability to construct or deconstruct a work of art in a scientific manner doesn’t make it inherently better, or more solid, or more groundbreaking.  It’s whether it touches your soul that matters.

Because “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Embracing Human Limitations

Have you heard the one about the efficiency expert who went to a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony?*

Funny?  Sure.  But nowadays, it’s not too far off the mark, I fear.

I read an article a few years ago (and for the life of me, I can’t remember where, or by whom, and I haven’t been able to track it down) about reaching the limits of efficiency.  Orchestras are the most dramatic example of late, but many live arts presenters are struggling to get the greatest possible return with the least possible investment.  Theaters are moving pit orchestras to separate rooms so they can sell more seats.  Concerts are programmed based on what music the organization owns so they spend minimal amounts on new repertoire.  Sets are becoming more “minimalist” – in part, because it is less expensive to paint flats than to build a full-blown set.

In the recording industry, artists and engineers are increasing their use of multi-track recording and digital manipulation to make a few musicians sound like a crowd.  And music distributors are moving farther and farther away from “hard products” like CDs in favor of digital downloads.  It’s just getting harder and harder to recoup your investment.  Everyone is looking for the shortcut.

Every arts organization I know of is tightening their belt, looking for ways to do more with less every single year, and still bring quality performances to their audiences.  But I fear they are approaching a limit that cannot be worked around, buried, or simply willed away.

The human factor.

What I’m about to say could apply to almost any artist, but for the sake of this blog entry, let’s talk specifically about musicians.  The first factor is practice.  No matter how efficient a musician may be in their individual practice sessions, there comes a point where the body and mind simply can’t absorb the information any faster.  Once that kind of efficiency is reached, there are no shortcuts to be taken.

Nor is there a shortcut for group rehearsals.  Even if every single musician in an orchestra has practiced Torke’s Jasper until it is memorized, they still can’t simply hop up on stage the night of the performance, and give a solid performance of a 12-minute work cold.  It takes rehearsal, at tempo or below, enough times to get it right.

And then, there is the performance itself.  There are no more shortcuts left, which is the real joy of live performance.  A 12-minute work takes 12 minutes to perform.  Audience and performers are swept up in the same musical currents for the duration of a piece, bringing a unity to all the participants that is unique to the live experience.

Meanwhile, arts organizations are cutting, cutting, cutting away as much as they can, to make the most of what they have.  And I fear they are reaching that limit, the human limit, that cannot be cut any further.  Yet we continue to ask individuals to do as much (or more) with less, because there are no more shortcuts available in other areas.  In other words, we ask the impossible.

Believe me, I wish I had a solution to achieving the highest performance standards with even lower costs.  Unfortunately, I don’t.







*Just in case you haven’t heard it . . .

An efficiency consultant gave his critique of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony:

  1. For a considerable period, the oboe players had nothing to play. Their number should be reduced, and their work spread over the whole orchestra, thus avoiding peaks of inactivity.
  2. All 24 violins were playing identical notes. This seems unnecessary duplication, and the staff in this section should be drastically cut. If a large volume of sound is needed, this could be obtained by the use of an amplifier.
  3. Much effort was involved in playing the 16th notes. This seems an excessive refinement, and it is recommended that all notes should be rounded off to the nearest eighth note. If this were done, it would be possible to paraprofessionals instead of experienced musicians.
  4. No useful purpose is served by repeating with horns the passage that has already been played by the strings. If all such passages were eliminated, the concert could be reduced from two hours to 20 minutes.
  5. The symphony is in two movements. If Schubert did not achieve his musical goals by the end of the first movement, then he should have stopped there. The second movement is unnecessary and should be cut.
  6. In the light of the above, one can only conclude that if Schubert had paid attention to such matters, his symphony would probably have been finished by now.


What Does It Mean to “Know Your Music”?

This link came across my Facebook newsfeed the other day.  I made a quick mental note of it, with the idea I might decide to read it later.  I have great respect and admiration for Harry Connick, Jr., but when it comes to American Idol . . . well, let’s just say that, given the “take it or leave it” options, I definitely leave it.

Then a second friend linked to the same article, with an admission that he doesn’t watch Idol either, but he thought the blog was spot on.  So I read it.  I suggest you do, too.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.


There is a combination of technique and technology, which, to me at least, seems to conspire to suck the life out of most pop music today.  And I think Connick was on the right path when he took these contestants to task for not having a real understanding of what they were singing.  Technique only gets you so far.  Mimicking Etta James (or anyone else for that matter) doesn’t mean you know what you’re singing.

So why am I talking about pop music?  Because I think we sometimes run into the same issues in contemporary classical music.  I’ve been in rehearsals and masterclasses with composers who pick and pick and pick at the minute technical details of their composition.  Thirty-second note quintuplets with five different instruments playing each of the five notes in sequence, which must be precisely timed, and perfectly matched in dynamics and articulation, and we are going to rehearse these 5 notes repeatedly for the next half hour to get it exactly right.  Or demanding extended techniques so complex they are barely musical.

What a way to suck the life out of a piece!

I tend to be much more illustrative and theatrical when I’m in rehearsal for one of my works.  Not that the technique isn’t there.  In Endings and Beginnings there is a phrase (“so exciting”) where the emphasis is on the last syllable, rather than the second-to-last as one might expect.  In rehearsal before the premiere, the accompanist (who is also a good friend) asked if that is what I really meant to do – it is the only time in the piece where that happens.  The tenor was stumbling a bit over that section, due to that little shift.

Rather than drilling the precision of the notation with him, I talked about the “why” of it.  When you’re newly in love, the world is giddy and unbalanced.  It’s like everything you do is on the edge of control, and that particular phrase is the moment of teetering on the edge, catching your balance, catching your breath, catching your heart that has just skipped a beat.

He ran through it again, and captured what I wanted perfectly.

Now, was it metronomically precise and perfect?  I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care.  It was heart-felt, and communicated exactly what I wanted.  He got it.

Caged is another work with a lot of meaning behind the notes.  The program notes for the audience describe it as “a life story in six short movements.”  Halfway through rehearsal with the last ensemble who performed this, they asked for more detail about the story behind the work.  When I described to them the challenges of dealing with someone in the throes of drug addiction, and my own emotions over the years as the addiction worsened, the feel in the room began to change.  The next run through had an ebb and flow that had been missing previously.  The fifth movement, “Sleep of the Dead,” was transformed once they realized I was less concerned with precision than with emotion.  They listened and reacted to each other in a whole new way, and the piece went from a technical challenge to a living, breathing work.

Now, this doesn’t excuse the performer(s) from applying as much technical precision as possible to a work.  I wrote what I wanted to hear, so bumbling through because you didn’t bother to learn the notes isn’t acceptable – or considerate.  Or professional.  Learning the background of a work is the next step, not the only one.  (The “Think” system of learning music only works in The Music Man.)

So yes, I believe that the musician(s) should have as much understanding of the work as a whole as possible.  But is it critical for the listener to have that same depth of knowledge?

Personally, I don’t think so.  It doesn’t hurt, of course.  But when you go to a new play, you don’t have it memorized, do you?  And while it adds to the character of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique to realize the importance of his heartbreak over Harriet Smithson, you can appreciate and enjoy the work without that knowledge.

The performers, if they are doing their job well, will pick you up and carry you along with them.  And if they are doing their job well, it is because they have done their homework, and have a strong understanding of exactly what it is they are trying to convey.

And, hopefully, when the composer came to rehearsal, she brought her heart along with her metronome.


Mass Appeal?

One nice thing about working at the radio station is that I get to do my own programming.  We have a library of almost 11,000 CDs, and I’m always discovering works or performances that surprise and delight me.  But there is a challenge inherent in programming, which is making sure the works I choose are “listen-able.”

I work weekends.  In particular, I am very careful in choosing what to play at 7:00 on a Sunday morning.  I want to catch your attention, to help get you moving you as you wake up and start your day.  So I try to play pieces that will keep your interest.  At the same time, I don’t want to blast you out of your bed with great crashes and cacophony so you slam the off button while you are cursing my name!  (I save the bombastic pieces for closer to noontime.)

I am also interested in sharing my new discoveries with you, in the hopes that you will enjoy them as much as I do.  I love some of the great newer works we have lurking in the music library.  And I suspect I am relatively successful in what I share on the air, since (so far) I get only positive feedback from our listeners.

There is an individual at the station, however, who has a genuine bias against 20th and 21st century music.  He often tells me I shouldn’t program “that stuff” because is it not “mass appeal.”  What is most frustrating to me is that he doesn’t actually listen to the works he tells me to avoid.  His bias is based on when the work was written, rather than the quality of the piece itself.

Not too long ago, he even said he didn’t want to have to take a music appreciation course just to listen to the radio.  Well, who says you have to do that?  You don’t need “lessons” to appreciate good music, whether it is Baroque or Modern.  Do you need to know every minute detail of the rulebook to enjoy watching tennis or football?  Do you have to understand every brushstroke in order to like (or dislike) Monet’s Water Lilies?  Do you have to read the Cliff Notes for every book you’ve ever read, just to be sure you understand it?  You like the piece, or you don’t.  That should be enough.

After all, how do we determine what is truly “mass appeal?”  Show me the studies, the research, to support the assertion that people prefer harpsichords over marimbas, and I’ll rework my programming accordingly.  Too often, though, people who throw around terms like “mass appeal” and “average listener” are really just saying, “this is what I like, so make me happy.”

So, until I find the appropriate research, or have a chance to personally chat with all of our listeners to find out what each one of them likes, I have to rely on my own taste and judgment, and hope others will enjoy what I am sharing.  Frankly, the best barometer for how successful I am comes from your feedback and the ratings.  So I hope you listen to my program, at least occasionally.  And I hope you like what I bring to you every weekend.

And if you don’t, well, let me know.

Recognizing Quality

I had a very interesting conversation this afternoon, about discerning “quality” in a performance.  I was in the studio, and was playing a CD of Joshua Bell performing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major.  Bruce Paulsen popped his head in, and we got to talking about the thrill of a great performance – Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, actors like Ian McKellan, and so on.

You might remember a few years ago, Bell played at a Metro subway station in Washington DC (links here and here).  It was an interesting study in human nature.  Any of the hundreds of people passing by him would likely have given him an enthusiastic standing ovation in a concert hall.  This incredible musician, playing with breathtaking beauty, was well deserving of everyone’s attention, even if he wasn’t recognized.  Yet, in that setting, he was all but ignored.  Is applause only reserved for the concert hall?

Which brings me to a real pet peeve.  I know I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again:  I get so frustrated when I go to a concert or a play, and the moment the piece is done, someone in the audience immediately leaps to their feet, clapping like there’s no tomorrow and screaming “Bravo” so they can be heard.  Yes, there are some performances worthy of that enthusiasm.  But not every single one!  In all honesty, I cannot remember the last concert I attended that did not include a standing ovation.

Nor is this a new phenomenon.  We saw “Cats” during its first tour in 1982, and after the performance of the song “Memory,” half of the audience jumped to their feet.  Frankly, that was not the piece I would consider the show-stopper.  The dancer who absolutely conquered the stage during “Mr. Mistoffelees” was clearly the one who delivered a genuinely show-stopping performance.  But Barbara Streisand had been all over the radio singing “Memory” by then, so that’s what the audience thought they were supposed to latch onto.

Auto-tuned pop singers put on glitzy performances and the audience goes nuts.  But take away the software, and hand them an ordinary mic on a bare stage, and most of the time you’ll be disappointed.  Watch “Dancing with the Stars” and you’ll see people, often with no musical sense and little coordination, tromping around the dance floor for 10 weeks being called “dancers.”  I dare you to watch DWTS side-by-side with a real ballroom competition, one where the dancers have been working at their craft since they were children, and realize where the true mastery lies.

I was fortunate to grow up near Philadelphia.  It seemed like every week we were back in town for another play, another show, another concert.  And when you have the incredible quality and variety that comes from an arts hub like Philly, (or New York, or Chicago, or the like), you have the opportunity to learn that there is a difference between “good” and “really good” and “incredible” and “holy moly, I just saw the performance of a lifetime!”

Therein lies my frustration.  There is nothing disappointing about a “really good” performance.  “Really good” is entertaining, enjoyable, and well worth the price of admission.  But “really good” in my book doesn’t merit a standing ovation.  And what happens when you are fortunate enough to attend an absolutely outstanding performance, worthy of cheers?  Well, the response ends up looking just the same as any other performance, because nowadays pretty much everyone gets a standing ovation.  In the end, rather than elevating a good performance with the (now de rigueur) standing ovation, I think we are actually diminishing the value of an outstanding one.

Part of recognizing quality is looking for it.  It’s OK if a performance didn’t particularly move you.  If you did enjoy the performance, applaud enthusiastically.  You’re not required to be on your feet in order to show the performers your appreciation.

The other part of recognizing quality is letting yourself be open to the possibilities.  Set aside all your pre-conceptions, and take in each performance with a clean slate.  You may find a new appreciation for something unexpected, or realize that, while the piece is incredible, the performance may fall short.

And the next time you see a performer on the street, take a moment to listen.  You may be surprised at the talent they bring to their performance.  Or you may hear Joshua Bell on your commute.