Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ramblings on the "Dumbing" of Music

Most of my recent blog postings have been concert reviews (and there are several more of them coming) so I think I’ll post at least one here about various musical ramblings…

MINOR TRAGEDY: A major classical station recently sent me the results of a survey. According to them, their listeners would like to hear “less contemporary, and less opera”. Odd, since they play very little of either (they also play very little early music). I might add that nobody I know was included in the survey. This limiting of "classical" to a narrower definition would appear to be more of the general dumbing down of music on the radio (“classical music by request” on KUOW in the 1980’s played at least half contemporary) – though in this case it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: of course nobody would want to hear something that they don’t understand because they haven’t heard much of it to begin with.

MAJOR TRAVESTY: Last month I received several panicked e-mails that something should be done because a major Seattle jazz club had booked Kenny G. Again, part of the dumbing down of music – it reminds me that about a month ago I saw a Lawrence Welk CD in the classical section of a public library. (That would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad). The e-mails suggested a noisy free-jazz jam outside of the door of the jazz club, demanding equal rights for adventurous music. Right on! However, of course there’s no reason to stop people from listening to Kenny G if they want to. There should just be some kind of notice that muzak isn’t jazz. (In the 1970’s a lot of people seemed to think that muzak was classical; I don’t know how that one got started either, but at least it seems to be disappearing now.)

MODAL PARADIGM SHIFT: Restricting classical music to its narrow definition and including elevator music as jazz are examples of the dumbing of music. It would seem, though, that people (particularly younger people) aren’t buying it. The following story is only a minor incident, but it illustrates my point. The last two weeks I had the experience of substitute teaching for a junior high orchestra. Contrary to stereotypes about junior highschoolers, their minds are open to different kinds of music and they don’t all suffer from Bieber Fever. One student said that his favorite composer was George Crumb, and then he proceeded to conduct the rest of the group in a spontaneous performance of Hovhaness’ “And God Created Great Whales” (with the Seattle Symphony’s recording of the same playing on the stereo at the same time to thicken out the sound and provide the whale parts). We didn’t have a score, of course; he shouted the instructions as they were playing and skipped the conventionally melodic parts. Judging from the students’ reactions, they didn’t think that this aleatory playing was weird at all; in fact they seemed to have a blast. There were only two dissenters: one who snickered throughout at the fact that nobody else seemed to get that the music was a joke, and one who argued that John Cage’s method of composition was the same as fraud (I had brought up Cage—and Terry Riley’s “In C” – later, in explaining that Hovhaness’ piece wasn’t an isolated bit of musical eccentricity).

So, what of it? Does this represent some kind of shift in musical ideas? When I was in junior high, anything that didn’t sound exactly like Led Zeppelin was suspect; yet here are kids enjoying something completely different from the current pop (and they like Zeppelin too, in itself a paradigm shift – when I was that age, I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to my parents’ music…!). In a game of music trivia, they also correctly identified music as diverse as Bach, Miles Davis, the Andrews Sisters, and a gamelan (as well as current pop tunes). This may be the beginnings of revenge against being “stupidified” by the mass media, at least in the field of music. Now, what about other fields…?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Concert Review: John Cage Tribute by Neal Kosaly-Meyer, Melissa Walsh, Stuart Dempster, and William O. Smith; Good Shepherd Center, 5/25/2012

This concert of Cage music was what a concert of experimental music should be. William O. Smith played the serialist-sounding Clarinet Sonata (the first piece that Cage played live in a concert) with technical virtuosity that didn’t detract from the austere beauty of the piece. Neal Kosaly-Meyer gave a performance of “One7” (for one performer producing sounds in any manner) as a spoken-word piece, reciting the ten “thunderwords” from James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” (one of Cage’s favorite text sources). Each of these is essentially a nonsense word but each chimes with subtle overtones and clangs with not-so-subtle references to source words; Neal spoke each of them (from memory) with its own emotions and dynamics (and let the silence between them speak for itelf). In the voice of a lesser “actor”, the effect could have been boring, pretentious, or forced. It was none of these, and the audience was mesmerized by the sounds of the sounds. Exactly what Cage would have wanted.





After the intermission, Melissa Walsh played the delicately beautiful (and vaguely gamelan-ish) “In a Landscape” on the solo harp – a tranquil contrast to the intensity of the vocal piece. Stuart Dempster enacted a bit of serious clowning around for the “Solo for Sliding Trombone” (including several minutes of playing trombone and conch shells in pantomime) and then it all came together for the finale, “Four6”. Again, this is for any manner of producing sounds; here, clarinet, trombone, voice, and harp played a kaleidoscope of fragments against the silences created by their own reverberations. (The players actually chose their sounds independently of the others, yet their synchronicity made it all sound planned – calm harp chords were interrupted by vocal or clarinet squeaks, only to resume; or intense trombone drones were dispelled by percussive sounds from other instruments.) These late “number pieces” of Cage are, in their calm intensity, very close to the late works of Feldman, and they prove once again that even when random elements are used to construct music (or any art form) the results are seldom random.

Reflections on my own concert, May 24th 2012

This was at the Good Shepherd Center, and featured three of my compositions. My apologies to anyone wanting to read this sooner.

Well, I guess it’s time that I face facts: I am a better composer of graphic scores and installations than I am of conventional through-composed material. This became obvious during this concert: the three “composed” piano pieces in my “Ukiyo-e” set sounded elementary, simplistic, forced, and simply not as interesting or beautiful as the fourth piece in the set (which is based on guided improvisation). However, in keeping with the general failure of this music, even my playing of this last piece was off. I thought it was okay at the time, but when I listened to my recording later, it was obvious that I was rushing the tempo for most of it. …And this is a quiet, slow piece, roughly in the manner of Morton Feldman…! It was all just very bad, and I’ll have to redo these pieces before attempting to perform them again.

The other part of the concert fared much better. These were two ensemble pieces based on graphic scores and instructions (none of which I actually played in…!). The first: “SoundScrolls VII”, played by Bruce Greeley (bass clarinet), Natalie Mai Hall (‘cello), and Mike Sentkewitz (string bass). Altogether they did a remarkable job on this; the “lugubrious tone-fog” that I’d mentioned in an earlier post was gone, replaced by a delicate landscape of quiet sustained drones, rain-like scatters, and quasi-impressionist melody. I can only say thanks to these players for their great performance (with a minimum of rehearsal time). I’ve posted a recording of the piece on my SoundCloud page.

The second: “Four Places on Planet Earth”, with Keith Eisenbrey and Matt Kocmierowski (found objects and percussion). This is a performance piece, where the percussionists play various objects (sorted by material) and consult field guides to determine what (and where in the performance space) to play next. The “four places” in the title refer both to the four places where the prerecorded tracks were made (the Olympic Peninsula, the Great Smokey Mountains, Israel, and Kisakata, Japan) and the four “playing stations” around the concert hall. These don’t particularly correspond to each other. The piece sets up an ever-changing cascade of environmental sounds; the prerecorded material was mostly originally recorded by Jonathon Storm (I edited, multi-tracked, and processed it) and the “live” players add their layers of “natural” sounds as well. “Natural”, that is, except for one of the playing stations, which contains brightly-colored plastic objects that wind up crowding out the sticks, stones, and seashells.

So that was it. I’m looking forward to working with these instrumentalists again, especially since they played so much better than I did…