Beginning this week, I will be taking a brief break from Interieux’s weekly updates. In the meantime, my listenings will be recorded using the playlist.
Take care, thoughtful ones. I will return soon.
Beginning this week, I will be taking a brief break from Interieux’s weekly updates. In the meantime, my listenings will be recorded using the playlist.
Take care, thoughtful ones. I will return soon.
In 2016, VAN, the German online classical music magazine, published an interview by Tobias Ruderer with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja discussing her views on classical versus new music. Kopatchinskaja is renowned as a versatile performer and a prolific recording artist with repertoire ranging from baroque works to contemporary commissions. In 2016, her program titled Bye Bye Beethoven debuted featuring the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The concert, an amalgamation of classical and contemporary, combined works by Ives, Haydn, Bach, Cage, Kurtag, and Beethoven for a distinct commentary on acceptability in musical conventions.
Kopatchinskaja’s conversation with VAN is as relevant as it is candid. The violinist highlights in her responses the immense bias of the classical music world toward the outdated standard repertoire. She emphasizes the importance of prioritizing new works and outlines several reasons why it is difficult for us to do so. One of her claims especially resonated with me. Kopatchinskaja notes that ensembles avoid programming new works because they are more difficult to put together than old ones. New compositions often employ unique techniques, individualistic approaches, and complex technologies. It is significantly easier to ask performers to rehearse a piece they have already heard and performed a hundred times than it is to bring an innovative new composition to life.
Kopatchinskaja even goes as far as to state that “standard pieces should be used only as exceptional, rare elements in programs.” I could not agree more. In a recent discussion with friends, the topic of Beethoven’s fast-approaching 250th anniversary came up. One person joked that upon looking over the programs of major orchestras across the country, they were not able to discern which concerts were in honor of the anniversary and which were their regular season programs. Though the romantic era has come and gone, in many ways it feels as if the classical music community is still living in the shadow of a handful of composers, unwilling to recognize any modern artist at the same level of greatness.
While the standard repertoire certainly has its time and place, our primary focus as a musical community should be on current works. We should be supporting the art of living composers often and whole-heartedly, indulging in the works of those long-passed only occasionally. This shift will be difficult to achieve and will require the efforts of performers as much as it will major ensembles. Great musicians like Kopatchinskaja demonstrate that this change in priorities is possible if only we are willing to put in the effort.
Imagine for a moment sonic ideas in the shape of blocks, repeating and building, until a spiraling vortex emerges. One idea layers over another, juxtaposing itself in such a way that entirely new ideas are formed. The layers align, then pull apart, then re-align a dozen, even a hundred, times. Over the course of 56 minutes, the layers morph slowly. Some sonic blocks pull away altogether and are gradually replaced by new ones. Others interject momentarily, complicating the intricate geometric shapes outlined by the base rhythms. Some fade initially but return later, giving continuity and familiarity to the complexity. Underneath it all, a steady pulse beats. Though the components move restlessly, often becoming misaligned, their unity is never compromised. They are one perfectly rotating form, a thousand facets glimmering brilliantly in the light.
This is Steve Reich’s minimalism.
Aptly called “our greatest living composer” by the New York Times, Steve Reich’s influence on modern music has been nothing short of monumental. He and composers like Philip Glass have been credited with the formation of the minimalist movement of the 1960s and ultimately the development of contemporary music as it exists today. Reich has been awarded such honors as The Schuman Prize (Columbia University, 2000), The Polar Prize (The Royal Swedish Academy of Music, 2007), and The Pulitzer Prize (2009). His works have been performed by the world’s major orchestras and performers including the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Of his works, Music for 18 Musicians, written between 1974 and 1976, is appropriately considered to be one of the most important pieces of the last fifty years. Scored for piano, female vocals, clarinet, percussion, violin, and cello, Music for 18 is the kind of piece that is both laboriously studied by music scholars and thoroughly enjoyed by casual listeners. Its complex cyclic structure, though theoretically fascinating, is easy to enjoy.
While recordings of Music for 18 are exceptional, they pale drastically in comparison to the experience of witnessing this piece live. This week, I had the pleasure of attending a performance at the Berklee Performance Center by a group of students from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. At the start of the concert, associate professor of percussion, Doug Perkins, noted that one member of the audience had exclaimed to him that he had been waiting 40 years to experience this piece live. I assure you, he was not disappointed.
Though the performance was not perfect, it was exceptionally executed. Reich’s complex geometric interplay was brought brilliantly to life, an hour passing in what felt like mere moments. Before its start, Perkins described the piece as “going to church in the best way possible.” Indeed, listening to Music for 18, entranced by the steadiness of the performers, the piece’s complex geometry spiraling to life with the listener in its midst, is a meditative experience. In some ways, it’s outright spiritual. By the performance’s end I was left with my mind feeling clearer and my body and heart more in sync. I felt as though my entire being had been slowly disassembled and reassembled in the absolute best way possible.
Music for 18 Musicians is an exceptional example of live music’s deep impact. It’s the kind of piece that a person can get excited about hearing for the first time in 40 years, and it’s the kind of piece that a person can listen to live every year for decades without tiring. Profound in more than just its historical significance, Music for 18’s brilliance is timeless, enthralling performers and listeners alike with a sonic experience that reaches deep into the core of the human spirit.
Richly colored, deeply moving, and profoundly emotional, the music of John Luther Adams is as revolutionary as it is beautiful. As much an environmentalist as he is a prolific artist, Adams’ work is, at its heart, a tribute to the sounds of the earth. From the lively Songbirdsongs (2012) to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean (2014), his compositions seek to evoke the powerful and familiar sounds of the natural world. They tug the listener back to their roots, calling them home to listen to the universe. A recipient of a Grammy Award (Become Ocean, 2014), the Heinz Award for environmental awareness, and the Nemmers Prize, Adams is one of the most astounding environmental activists in music and one of the most influential contemporary classical composers writing today.
Born in 1953, American composer John Luther Adams studied composition at the California Institute of the Arts with James Tenney. Post-graduation, Adams became fiercely involved in environmental protection efforts, eventually leading him to Alaska during the campaign for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. As he came to call the state home, its wealth of natural beauty inspired his writing, eventually leading him to compose dozens of works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, theater, voice, and electronics.
Adams’ compositions are most pronounced in their richness of color. Many of his works– like Dark Wind (2001) for bass clarinet, marimba, vibraphone, and piano– are minimalistic in nature, progressing slowly through gradual changes in harmony. Many of his pieces have a fluidity to them, almost never breaking, morphing softly and gradually over time. We see this intention specifically described in these performance notes preceding Dark Wind:
Attacks should be soft, but dynamics should be full throughout.
Everything should be connected with a continuous sense of line running from beginning to end.
The ideal balance is one in which all sounds in the air at any moment are equally audible.
This deep, slow progressing style is fitting for the monumental elements Adams’ uses his music to depict– dark wind in this case. It makes sense, then, that this style of writing is used in pieces like Become Ocean, The Light That Fills the World (1999-2000), and In the White Silence (1998) to depict massive and obscure environmental phenomenon like water, light, and silence.
For more specific natural sounds, like the birds in Songbirdsongs, Adams uses a more pointed form of sonic imagery. The melodies of flute and marimba are clearly bird-like, light, short, flitting, and chirping. However, in an interview with New Music Box, he notes that “unlike Messiaen, who prided himself on the accuracy and, as he put it, the authenticity of his bird settings—that was never [Adams’] objective… [He’s] not trying to reproduce anything that [he] hears or experiences in the world.” Rather than attempting to recreate the sound of a bird call or an iceberg exactly through tone painting, Adams seeks to find a musical equivalent, somewhere halfway between the real thing and the human perception of it.
This philosophy of representation in itself is revolutionary. Because of it, Adams’ music ceases to be a mere sonic representation of the natural world. His works are living, breathing soundscapes, illuminating the ways in which we, as humans, perceive and interact with our surroundings. They are commentaries on our connection with nature, our role in the environment, and our place in the universe. For a generation that so desperately requires it, Adam’s compositions compel us to remember the most precious relationship we have: the one with the Earth.
In the modern music industry, so much diversification exists that it is essential to a genre’s survival to actively support its artists, composers, and listeners. Where once, in the days of early music, one or a few genres of music could captivate most listeners, today there are a seemingly infinite number of genres and subgenres, each with its own wide listener base. Even more so, today’s music lacks expectations for structure. Gone are the assumptions of tonality and sonata form. Today’s artists take music in any and every direction. To thrive, modern musicians must network, innovate, and excel.
In contemporary music, it is especially imperative for artists to collaborate, to fuel the movement for innovation and expression within each other and to be supported in that effort. Around 2009, The Boston New Music Initiative started with the intention of establishing a network for composers and musicians. By commissioning new works, organizing concerts, and aiding members in professional development, BNMI seeks to advance the careers of new music artists. Since its founding, BNMI has commissioned five works, held over 30 concerts, and performed the pieces of over 170 living composers. In just a few years, they have become a front-runner in Boston’s new music scene.
The work of BNMI is crucial to the progress of new music. It, and organizations like it, give musicians a means for professional development while stimulating increased musical activity in their communities. By organizing performances and supporting new works by living composers, BNMI is accelerating the reach of new music in a huge way. Additionally, many of their events are funded by donations from attendees using a pay as you will system, making them more accessible.
Currently in their tenth season, BNMI will host two performances this spring, one on February 16 and one on April 7. Combined, the two concerts will feature works by over 20 contemporary artists, including Alex Berko, winner of BNMI’s 6th Annual Commissioning Competition. These performances will showcase both the organization’s core ensemble and guest artists including soprano Felicia Chen, pianist Amy Lee, bassoonist Kaitie Noe, and saxophonist Dennis Shafer.
The Boston New Music Initiative is an admirable organization and an integral force in fostering the success of contemporary music in Boston. Their role in this community should not be understated. It is absolutely essential that we, in the music industry, support their efforts and the efforts of groups like them.
Image courtesy of the BNMI website
In his essay, “Ontologies of Music,” published in Cook/Everists’ collection Rethinking Music, Philip V. Bohlman explores some of the ways in which music is defined. His narrative does not seek to answer these inquiries but rather presents them as a theoretical framework that may be used for further exploration. Bohlman’s ontologies question the origins, expressions, and purposes of music from perspectives ranging from global to personal, natural to manufactured, and intrinsic to extrinsic.
One passage from this essay focuses specifically on the nature of authenticity as it is related to recorded sound. Bohlman explains that when the preservation of sound became possible in the 19th-century, recording created a sense of inauthenticity. Recordings are mere reproductions of live music. They are inherent and distinct in their own characteristics, many of which have nothing to do with the music itself (i.e. the processing, room, musicians, technology.) In this way, recordings are objects, primarily the product of external factors.
Each musical component, from the instrument being played to the recording it becomes, causes the music to “exist only at a considerable metaphysical distance from the musician.” As a result of this distancing, music becomes perceived as less authentic. However, the distinction between authentic and inauthentic music has become more blurred as a result of improvements in technologies, such as the use of electronic instruments in live performances.
We must question what it even means for music to be considered authentic. Perhaps if music is authentic, it seems real, genuine, and truthful. But to what, or to who? If authenticity is defined as being true to the composer’s intentions, then it is hindered by the manner in which it is notated, the performers who play it, and the space in which it is played. If, in a rehearsal, the composer wishes to make a change or add a comment to the published score, they do so at the risk of said change making the played music inauthentic to the written music. Which is correct? How much is music allowed to change and adapt? Can every performance of a piece be authentic if each one is not the same?
In the case of historical works, this question only becomes more complicated. For the sake of authenticity, some (but not all) performers play on period instruments. But what about tuning, affect, ornamentation, and performance practices for which we have no record? At least with living composers, it is possible to clarify details about their intentions. However, for pieces with dead composers, it sometimes appears impossible to recreate the score as it would have been played at the time of its creation.
However, the music must too pass through the performer as a crucial component of its production. Can authenticity, then, be defined as being true to the performer’s expressions? How much room does a work allow for expression? If a piece is extremely technically difficult and must be modified to be made playable, does its authenticity diminish? Is the performer allowed creative freedom in instances where the composer’s intentions are not clear? Is improvisation more authentic than written music because it depends exclusively on the musician’s expressions? Each of these questions presents a unique challenge to the dilemma of authenticity. Does it exist at all?
For Bohlman, music’s authenticity is attributed to its point of creation, its source of production: the human body. He explains that “when recordings reproduce sound, [music] no longer belongs to the self; its ownership has been transferred with its sound.” There is something deeply intimate about the relationship between music and the human body. To distance that phenomenon with technology introduces an alienness in many ways, even though recording has allowed for huge advantages in accessibility and preservation.
However, even this explanation presents issues, which Bohlman observes. By attributing music’s authenticity to the human body, it becomes linked with human activities and action, a seemingly inseparable, ever personal experience. Is music able to exist simply for the sake of being music? Is it possible that music is able to be authentic to itself?
These questions are endlessly huge and perhaps even unanswerable. What is true for Gregorian chant is undoubtedly not the same for electronica. Questions of authenticity ask us to think deeply about our music: where it comes from, what it is for, and why it moves us. Authenticity in music is certainly real. It is a tangible phenomenon to the listener, stirring their heart and awakening their passions. Authentic music connects with, inspires, and resonates with the listener. So perhaps if music cannot be entirely authentic, it is up to us to determine what makes it most authentic.
♩ ♬ ♫ ♪ ♩ ♬ ♫ ♪
Bohlman, Philip V. “Ontologies of Music.” In Rethinking Music, 17-34. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Guitarist Cory Wong, best known for his work with the popular funk band Vulfpeck, is a multi-instrumentalist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Legendary for his extreme technical skills and his unique right-hand picking technique, Wong is an exceptionally skilled musician. Beyond Vulfpeck, he has collaborated with artists including Nashville singer-songwriter Ben Rector and the instrumental quartet/Vulfpeck off-shoot The Fearless Flyers. In 2018, Wong released his second album titled The Optimist.
Wong performed this past weekend in a set featuring Australian actress Emily Browning at Brighton Music Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. Brighton Music Hall is a smaller venue, accommodating around 500 people, but for this show, it was sold out entirely weeks in advance. After Browning’s short opening set, Wong launched into a high energy, funk and groove extravaganza lasting over two hours.
This performance was nothing short of incredibly enjoyable. While it was both hilariously entertaining– opening with a triumphant entry featuring the NFL theme, sprinkled with drawn out tales ending in so-horrible-they’re-incredible punchlines, and featuring a wacky waving tube man or two– Wong’s performance was also incredibly virtuosic. His technical skills were unparalleled, bringing the audience to dance, groove, and clap along even to improvisations over traditional Serbian rhythms in 25/8. Wong is an outright joy to hear live.
Beyond just the lighthearted entertainment, this set was crafted with true artistry. The band’s performance was noteworthy enough on its own, but the concert also cleverly integrated an impressive amount of multimedia work. “Dial Up,” the popular track from Wong’s first album, Cory Wong and the Green Screen Band, was one of the more elaborate multimedia pieces featured. Similar to the video below, the band played along with a projection that rotated through several nostalgic internet themed videos. Themes from the tune were correlated with specific images (such as the recurring racing game and the AOL homepage,) meaning that musical cues and improvisational sections had to be timed precisely, maintaining rhythmic integrity throughout to ensure that the piece as a whole was effective. The band achieved this outstandingly, drawing the listener along on a funky journey back in time to old computer games and snail-paced internet connection.
Wong’s Boston performance was altogether genuine, unique, fun, and virtuosic. I would highly encourage anyone to see this show, to bring friends, and to be prepared to laugh and dance all night. Cory Wong is touring in the United States and the United Kingdom from now until April 2019. Tickets for several shows are already sold out.
Image courtesy of Tunespeak | Visit the artist’s website here