29 January 2007


Yeah, yeah, yeah, labels/genres are stupid and we all hate them. "...but is it jazz?" and "...but is it music?" are easily the two dumbest questions asked during the last century. But can I make a confession about my take on the 1970's "fusion" of jazz and rock? It does not at all sound to me like equal parts jazz and rock.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, who cares? I'm not saying it's bad or that I hate it. I like a lot of it. But I at least sympathize with the jazz purists of the time on this one: insisting to the death on calling it "jazz" is indeed an odd choice. It seems like most "real" rockers today have utter contempt for "real" jazz, making it hard for someone my age (i.e. not even alive in the 70's) to understand why the fusion people would covet the "jazz" label so much. It can't be for marketing purposes; calling something "jazz" is an excellent way to shoot yourself in the foot. Could it be that bebop virtuosity makes them insecure about their own shortcomings, so they try to appropriate the label and its supposed status without doing any of the actual shedding? Don't answer that.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, so I'm elitist/young/stupid/misguided/whatever. It just intrigues me when someone pulls a doublethink on us and no one says anything. Debussy abhorred the term "impressionism" (and to his credit, did say something about it), but we freely apply that term to his music without a second thought. It was nearly a decade after I learned the word "fusion" that I first heard the term "prog rock." To me, this is the missing link in the label game, yet Mahavishnu Orchestra and Lifetime are still "fusion" while Gentle Giant and ELP are "prog." To the contrary, it would seem to me that some of Dave Holland's or Joshua Redman's recent work, for example, are much more even-steven hybrids of jazz and rock, and hence more deserving of the label "fusion" (which is to say deserving of it in the literal sense, but not the one it has since acquired; their music is outstanding while "fusion" has become yet another "useful term of abuse" akin to the worst ism money can buy).

Yeah, yeah, yeah, this post was a waste of everyone's time because it deals with categorization. Never mind then.

23 January 2007

Willingly Excluded and Loving It

It seems to me that examining the similarities and differences between classical music concerts and professional sports events could teach us something, or at least raise some interesting questions. Specifically, I'm wondering why we read so much about audiences feeling "excluded" at orchestra concerts when the audience for sporting events is really no more involved. The vast majority of sports fans never set foot on the field (they'd be arrested if they did), have never met their favorite player in person, probably could not relate to this player as a person terribly well in any case, and have a negligible (if any) effect on the outcome of the game. If sports fans readily accept such "exclusion", why do we end up with ridiculous stories like this article from Andante (old news in the musico-blogosphere, I suspect), which reports a case of patrons complaining about the facial expressions of the musicians during concerts?

I can see the musicological platitudes coming down Broadway (think Minneapolis, not New York City; that means that this particular group of platitudes rolls in a beat up Cadillac, not a stretch limo). Nonetheless, I'm not convinced that the two (concerts and sports) are quite as different as one might want to think. More accurately, I guess what I'm saying is that they are not that different to me. Say what you want, but the more I think about it, the more I'm realizing that I'm attracted to music and sports for almost exactly the same reasons, and that I'm upset about trends in both that have a striking amount in common. As with music, my attraction to sports is aesthetic: I find the spectacle of a diving catch or a three-point shot to be aesthetically pleasing. I'm one of those morons who can watch or even just listen on the radio to practically any baseball, basketball or football game, regardless of who is playing, and be entertained. What ruins the experience for me is when the commentators try to explain minutia of strategy or the players' lives during the broadcast in an effort to create a "story line". The game is the story line, dumbasses!

What are the parallels? Sometime ago, classical music organizations decided that it was a good idea to attempt to explain the form of an unfamiliar piece before playing it for an audience. I've never thought this was particularly productive, and now I'm more convinced than ever that I'm right. Of course, I know most of those things already when it comes to music, so I'm not particularly well-qualified to evaluate their efficacy on an audience of dilettantes. In the case of sports, however, I occupy something closer to the place of the now proverbial "non-musician listener", the one who knows nothing technical about music but enjoys listening to it (or thinks they do). The highest level of sports I ever played at was high school, yet as a sports fan, I really don't care which player has a great sense of humor, which coach is a genius, or how the pitcher grips his change-up. I just want to watch the damn game, and I don't need anyone trying to make it seem more interesting or important than it actually is (or perhaps in some cases, painting it as something that it is not).

On the other hand, I'm about as into NASCAR as the average orchestra patron is into Milton Babbitt. There's not a whole hell of a lot anyone could do to get me to watch NASCAR. I don't care about the supposed skill involved or who's using which kind of engine; a bunch of cars driving around in a circle is not engaging to me, and no depth of understanding about the peripheral issues can change that. If we accept this approach to music, we reach the conclusion that there's nothing we can do when someone threatens to boycott the orchestra if the players don't smile more (or if they insist on playing Babbitt). As unpopular an opinion as it is, I say we let them walk away rather than pandering to the dilettante sensibility. We don't need them (or it) any more than NASCAR needs me. The music and the sport speak for themselves.

I've seen it written that the difference is that sports fans are "emotionally" involved, and that they have the freedom to move around, chit chat, and basically do whatever the hell they want while they're in the stadium. However, there are still rules: no running on the field, no throwing object at players, assigned seats, etc. etc. If I had a choice in the matter,of course, I would be on the field competing, or at least sitting in the front row, but the fact that I'm not doesn't really make me feel excluded, nor does the fact that the players don't really acknowledge my presence any more than a musical performer acknowledges their audience at the end of a piece.

What keeps me coming back to sporting events is that I enjoy them on a very basic level, so basic in fact that it is much easier to screw it up than it is be make improvements. What room for improvement there is lies almost entirely in simplifying the experience by eliminating the extracurricular distractions. Whether in sports or music, piling on layers of story lines, technical information, program notes, personal information about the participants, advertising, and so on represents a move in the opposite direction.

19 January 2007

Your Comments Always Welcome (read: is anyone out there...???)

In enabling comment moderation, I inadvertently also limited posting privileges to "team members." I think I've got it straightened out now. I intend for this blog to invite comment rather than discourage it, so feel free to chime in at any time. (even if you play for another team)

Greater and Lesser Divides

As the subtitle "death by eclectic chair" is meant to imply (thankfully for you it's a pun, not a typo), this blog is showing signs of going in phases in terms of subject matter, the current manifestation of which would appear to be an abnormal preoccupation with issues relating to the orchestra in various ways. Rather than resisting this, I'm going to embrace it and have yet another post on the topic (remarkable for someone who once alienated a college orchestra conductor by accidentally blurting out that "orchestral brass players are just a bunch of jocks" within his earshot). I've been reading this, obtained by way of Henry Fogel's blog, and of course, I have an opinion and will subject you to it presently.

I originally got into blogging (reading them, that is, more than writing them) by way of the whole "saving classical music" thing that the Arts Journal people in particular are always on about. There are, of course, still good reasons to be having such a discussion; nevertheless, I am growing weary of articles like this. It once seemed very much appropriate, very hip and avant garde in a pedestrian sort of way to be taking the long view on these issues out of concern for the future of the music. Now I just bristle. Why? For one thing, it is no longer avant garde at all: this article is more detailed and informative than most, but is really just making the same recommendations and is based on the same premises as most everything one reads on this subject. The other part of the problem is that some of these premises are tenuous.

Before I get into more specific/substantive critiques, let me first say that between the things I read in these kinds of articles and the things I've observed in peers of mine who aspire to orchestral jobs, I can only laugh when they say things to me like, "Freelancing??!! That's a terrible way to make a living!" To each his own, my friends. I will not pass judgement on you if you agree not to do the same to me. Most pros I've talked to personally absolutely love their jobs, whether they are orchestral players or total freelancers. (according to this and other articles, that's most likely because none of them have been orchestral string players, who, true to what is said behind their back in music school, really do seem to be a bunch of emotional malcontents) Even aside from what happens to them after they win the job, it seems to me that there certainly is a personality gap between orchestral pros and the rest of music (not surprising considering the necessary preparation; maybe that will be fodder for another post).

Now, here's what I think is more objectively wrong with this article. In attempting to "bridge" one gap (namely, that between what student musicians think their job description will be in a pro orchestra and what it actually is), the recommendations made here would just create a new gap between how academia trains them to fulfill these obligations and how they actually have to be dealt with in practice. The article advocates for conservatories to implement required classes on fundraising and outreach activities, complaining that most aspiring orchestral musicians win their first audition with no knowledge whatsoever of these things and must learn "on the job." I'm certainly willing to take their word for it, BUT...considering all the aspects of musical training where one is already struggling with theory-versus-practice issues, this just appears to me to be one more. It could do a little bit of good, but say someone from Minneapolis gets really good at schmoozing with donors here and subsequently wins an orchestral job in the deep south. Can you say culture shock? There are elements to social interaction that are not taught in school because they cannot be taught in school. To put it mildly, I think that these are idealistic recommendations. It all sounds peachy in theory, but I'm not holding my breath for a breakthrough. I suppose we'll find out in due time if the program at Eastman, for example, bears any fruit.

There was a larger theme (I was laughing, actually) running throughout the article whereby it is repeatedly implied that orchestral musicians lack social skills (the word curmudgeon was used at one point). I am again willing to take their word for lack of sufficient personal experience. However, by the time they get to college, is it not a little bit late to start working on this? While college was overall a productive and enjoyable experience for me, it felt way too much like high school already. Many professors took attendance and factored it into grading; students repeatedly whined and coerced instructors into granting opportunities for extra credit or throwing out certain test questions; and as a music major, 89 out of the 120 credits I needed to graduate had to be in my major, which meant that I had almost no real decisions to make when it came time to register for classes. If you had also required me to take a class on outreach and another one on grantsmanship and another one on wine and cheese party etiquette, I might have quit. Actually, there is very little in the classes that I did have to take that I could not have learned elsewhere (common critique of majoring in music which I should have heeded before jumping in). How about we reserve valuable credit hours for those things instead of micromanaging every last detail of everything else? I'm not aware of other fields where the training aspires to be not only intellectual and practical but also social. People simply are panicked in music to the point of irrationality because money is drying up faster than you can spell "anacrusis".

Now for the most galling line of the entire thing:
"Rather than simply introducing a piece of music by offering factual background...[actor/arts educator Eric Booth] teaches musicians how to connect emotionally to introduce a piece."
Touché. Did I mention that Ligeti's piano etudes make me happy, or that Dolphy's "Out to Lunch" makes me feel invigorated? Anyone can play this game. It doesn't take a workshop with some "arts educator" to develop, and it's not going to make Ligeti or Dolphy fans out of an audience of conservative midwestern suburbanites. In case anyone was wondering, that's why it has not traditionally been used in pre-concert talks. With all due respect toMr. Booth, I can't help but bristle at the apparent total absence from his resume of any relevant experience as a musician. Leave it to an actor to tell you that your shoe is untied while you're wearing sandals.

Is it criminal that some of us just want to play our damn instruments, that this is the reason we pursue careers in music, and that we don't need or even always want to know anything about the composer or the performers in order to enjoy listening to the music? I suspect that we have always been here and that we're not going away any time soon. I also know that we are not all "curmudgeons" as the article implies, but that somehow our passion is not readily communicated by our intuitive actions as functional musicians. The message here seems to be that perhaps the place for us is no longer as professional orchestral players. Good thing I got the message in time without anyone having to tell me.

16 January 2007

Too Much Information

It was not without trepidation that I recently filled out some parts of my blogger profile that I had previously left blank (specifically, the "about me" and "favorite music" sections). Gratuitous and trivial? Mostly. At best, it could help to contextualize some of my more audacious comments. At worst, it marks me as someone who got the flu and had nothing better to do in between hacks and sniffles. The fact that I had to cut down the list of music to fit within the maximum allowable number of characters is particularly telling of how sick I was. In any case, enjoy.

I've also updated and augmented the links section, including some more of my music (if you haven't visited my website lately, I've tweaked it a bit as well).

Finally, astute readers may notice some suspicious dates and times on my posts. Yes, I admit it: I often write posts ahead of time, leave them alone for a few days, then edit them accordingly. Hopefully this isn't in violation of any written or unwritten blogging etiquette. I think it's worth it to aim to present more complete thoughts, or at least as complete as I can manage.

Another Contest Conundrum

I've entered a few composition contests in my time, but until this spawned this and this, I never stopped to think about entry fee-to-prize ratio or any of the other criticisms that were leveled. What I find galling above all else about contests is when the application form asks the entrant to list the schools they've attended and the teachers they've studied with (as with this one, which I've occasionally considered entering). From reading the entry form, it seems at least somewhat ambiguous as to whether this information is absolutely required (could I write "N/A"?), and gives no hint whatsoever as to why they are requesting it. I know I've seen this in other places as well, but I can't seem to recall what they were. Having had no individual instruction in composition, I usually shy away when a contest requests school and teacher information, figuring that they are basically rigged in favor of "university composers" or whatever we are calling them now.

Wait, what's that I hear? Ah yes, it's the footsteps of the NewMusicBox graduate student types walking over to their computers in order to attempt to rationalize with me. "It's not like the judges actually take that into consideration." Well then maybe they should ask for everyone's favorite color as well. I sure hope they don't actually take your education into consideration in the judging process, but why request the information in the first place? Do they judge you more harshly if you had a really good teacher and more favorably if you had a really shitty one? If it really didn't matter to them either way, you'd think that they would want to avoid learning these kinds of things about the entrants so as to remain as unbiased as possible. And yes, I know that one does not remain "unbiased" when judging artworks against each other, but the "bias" in that case is an aesthetic (musical) bias, not a personal (extramusical) bias. Or could it be that the absence of formal compositional training is such an accurate predictor of aesthetic bias that this information is actually useful to them in the judging? In other words, is it so that they can separate the "serious" (schooled) entries from the junk (unschooled) entries?

Some people may disagree with me, but I find that attitude to be more than a little bit misguided. (seriously Colin, an analogy between training composers and racehorses??!! I couldn't have fabricated a more timely critique out of thin air and bottle of hard liquor.) Of course, it's their contest. They can do whatever they want, and I should have better things to worry about anyway, like writing more unschooled music and not fixing my embouchure. I'll never be happier about being wrong than if someone can tell me conclusively that there is a valid reason for requesting this information with a submission to a composition contest.

15 January 2007

We Travel The Blogways

As I continue to avoid practicing orchestal excerpts, a cursory glance at recent online developments yields a newfound awareness of several intriguing diversions. With bloggers everywhere still emerging one by one from holiday-induced hibernation, my neighbors might actually get some sleep this week.

Was it not just last week that in the midst of a flu-induced haze I wrote that I had never seen Var�se's name mentioned on a blog? Suburban Scene breaks the streak, if it ever really existed at all, by stating that he finds the master of organized sound to be boring. Fair enough.

You say you want comedy? Tears of a Clownsilly delivers. Reminds me of my friend from college who took a jazz course offered by the Afro-American Studies department. By the end of the semester, he could have written this (but props to pws for doing the honors anyway).

Finally, Drew McManus links to an interesting article of his on orchestras and recording. The stats on free versus paid downloads induced a kind of composite laugh/gag on my part, although I guess it is anything but surprising. Of course, before you go running off for your free Beethoven, don't forget that you can download a whopping 20 minutes of my too-tonal-but-not-tonal-enough/kinda-inside-but-kinda-outside junk for free right here. I live to serve.

And the title of the post? Well, you'll just have to imagine the music of Sun Ra whilst traveling. (who could forget it?) Now get lost. I need to practice.

Doomed To Repeat

Everyone should read this post by Kyle Gann. My jaw was on the floor a couple of times. I want to say I agree with him, but that would not be putting it correctly. The correct thing to say is that I always wanted to say what he said but that I never knew enough to do so with confidence. If I had tried to express those ideas in writing, it would count as pure conjecture; coming from him however, it means something.

This wasn't even the first time this week that I felt simultaneously validated and beaten to the punch. For Christmas, I received a copy of Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation and Other Essays." I've just begun to scratch the surface, but I am already both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised with the contents of this book; pleasantly because I agree with so much of it, but unpleasantly because some of her ideas bear a striking (and in one notable case, even literal) resemblance to what I though were my own original insights. If you were to read some of my more extended writings on music with an awareness of Sontag, you'd probably see me as anything from an leech to a plagiarist, particularly the part about descriptive versus prescriptive approaches.

The adage about those who don't know history is somewhat appropriate here, but for the moment, I'm not nearly as concerned about my own ignorance in reproducing these ideas as about the fact that I was led in this direction simply by observing and reacting to the world around me. If someone else leveled these same criticisms 40 years ago, and if this work is now hailed as "a modern classic" (according to the back cover), why have things remained so much the same that someone living now could independently observe the same phenomena and take issue with them for the same reasons? Kyle quoted a 150 year-old document in his post that was so relevant to modern day composition training, it could have been written last week. Are we to conclude that composers haven�t learned a thing in 150 years?

Before anyone beats me to it, here's my next big conjecture: rational thought and civilized dialogue have taken us quite a long way, so far in fact that I think we're starting to identify some wholly irreconcilable differences among musicians that will persist until the end of time. It's hard not to see the musical landscape as a collection of us-versus-them propositions: academic composers versus intuitive composers, scale-mongering jazz musicians versus purely melodic players, Greg Sandow and his cultural contexts versus me and my abstract musical structures. I even think that the conflict over absolute and program music has remained and will remain unresolved in some important ways.

Once such a conflict has spanned several generations and enveloped participants who are wholly ignorant of its long history, I�d say we have reached an impasse. Besides actually caring about these things, I enjoy the debate for its own sake, yet I often wonder if the latter isn't the only thing keeping the debate going at all at this point. If people the likes of Sontag and Gann say these things and nothing changes, perhaps there isn't much of anything left for the rest us to do about it than to put our ideas into practice and let the results speak for themselves. Greg Sandow jokes in his �book� that since he�s a composer, maybe he should write a piece to show where he thinks classical music needs to go. After some of the things I�ve read on his blog, I�d say this is nothing less than an obligation!

Instead of debating the justification (or lack thereof) for requiring undergraduate music students to interpret pure instrumental pieces programmatically as part of their course of study, how about we let the musicologists go on beating their meat and instead debate the merits of B-flat tubas versus C tubas? Finale software versus Sibelius software? Coke versus Pepsi? That ought to get us somewhere.

11 January 2007

Idle Thoughts After a Long Day

#1- Low humidity coupled with low temperatures is one of mother nature's many ways of saying "I hate you" to brass players. #2- Who on earth is bored enough to harmonize and orchestrate Charlie Parker's entire solo on "Confirmation" for a big band sax section? I'm sure it was cool at one time, and even I would have thought it was cool at one point in my life, but today I'm just not feeling it (possibly as a result of #1).

05 January 2007

The Room Gets Smarter...(or not)

I finally got the bug that is going around, so I've been holed up the last few days trying to recover. Out of sheer frustraton, I actually turned on classical public radio, which normally bores me to tears. Alas, they were playing opera. My distaste for opera is so intense that I used to literally leave the opera sections of my music history exams blank and take a B- because I could not bear to study it; BUT, without any frame of reference or even being able to determine the language, I made an educated guess within a couple of minutes that the composer was Puccini. And I was right.

I've done this before. I'd like to brag about it, but I'm really more embarrassed that it has come to this. I am a hardcore music junkie, yet it seems like there is so much out there that it is still difficult to have a conversation with anyone else without being embarrassed at my own lack of knowledge. Depending on who you're talking to, "20th century Classical" might include Puccini, or it might not; "contemporary jazz" might mean Cecil Taylor or it might mean Kenny G. I feel like such an idiot savant most of the time, but that's because you don't hear the music that I do know on the radio at all (or really anywhere, come to think of it). Even among like-minded and thoroughgoing friends and collarborators, our breadth of knowledge does not always overlap.

It's frustrating, but it's reality. Despite the occasional embarrassing moment, I will continue to eschew impressive knowledge in favor of what I deem to beuseful knowledge. In a way, I'm envious of the musicologist types who can talk intelligently about damn near anything, but I think its always more important to consider knowledge as a means to an end rather than an end unto itself (not necessarily saying they are guilty of this). My ignorance of Puccini isn't particularly handicapping to my performing or compositional endeavors; on the other hand, it would be practical that my near total ignorance of Cecil Taylor be addressed sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in the day, and decisions like this must be made all the time if one is to accomplish anything meaningful in the allotted time.

Although I don't plan on putting forth any more effort than I already have towards mending my relationship wih either the local classical station or opera (other than finally obtaining a DVD of Wozzeck, which holds the most promise on the latter count), I guess there's still a glimmer of hope, for in my invalid half-sleep state, I almost enjoyed listening to Act III of Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" (purely as abstract sound, of course). Now if they would just play more Ligeti...

03 January 2007

The Dark Horse

What jumps out at me about much of the discourse on the internet concerning contemporary classical music is that there are an awful lot of factions and isms running around loose. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks the other day that there is a personal style that I seem to think I hear echoed constantly in the work of composers presently in their 20's and 30's that has no ism associated with it and is seldom (never) mentioned. It is not that of Webern, Babbitt, Reich or Feldman but that of Varèse.

I'm sure that at least some of this is coincidental, but I find it interesting anyway (if not just for the fact that if I'm wrong about this in any objectifiable way, then it says something rather interesting about me instead). I hesitate to use a phrase along the lines of "hangs over it like a dark cloud" in this situation because for the most part, I like the music of Varèse. Unfortunately, if I intend to make any sort of worthwhile point with this entry, I can't avoid inadvertently trashing him in some respects because by and large, I am usually unhappy when I perceive his influence lurking behind a new work.

Reasons for this? Number one would be that harmony is my favorite element of music, even though I'll readily accept the most liberal definition of what it might be. Varèse pushes me to my limits in this respect, yet one always senses that he knows what he's doing. In appropriating only parts of his style, it would not be difficult to come up with something which could drive me permanently batty. That brings us to number two , which would be that try as we might, we are not all as clever as Varèse, who himself wrote an absolute masterpiece (in my opinion) that is replete with near direct quotes from an even more famous work (I'm referring to Ameriques and The Rite of Spring).

I'm not sure I can remember the last time I read the word "Varèse" on my computer screen, yet I cannot forget all of the pieces I've suffered through at student composition recitals and new music concerts which seem to take Varèse's approach to sound without any discernible (or at least skillfull) approach to pitch, whether his or someone else's. Coincidence, or dark horse?

01 January 2007

More On (moron?) Orchestral Excerpts

Event #1: I had a conversation with another musician several months ago where he said that too many players and teachers use orchestral excerpts to learn to play the instruments rather than learning the instruments in order to play the excerpts. Event #2: I had a student of mine order the newfangled Bordogni for Tuba thing from Encore; in the preface, it said something to the effect of: these etudes should be used strictly for developing musicality and not at all for developing technique.

Can you say chicken and egg? Technique does not grow on trees (and even if it did, by now some multi-national corporation would have seen to the overthrow of a third-world government to get their hands on it and be selling it for megabucks, which most certainly do not grow on trees either...but I digress). The first of these two points is well-taken: no tubist is going to be able to approach the Ride or Fountains without some serious shedding of less difficult material. On the other hand (and I'm speaking from personal experience in making this next point), there's no shame in using the excerpts to shore up deficiencies in an advanced player. I've always been a high range specialist with a weak low range; loud low excerpts are my achilles heel, and there doesn't seem to be any way for me to address this concern without just jumping in to the actual music itself. On the third hand, my interlocutor makes an important point: this most certainly did NOT work when I as a much weaker player overall (four years ago or so) made my first serious pass at these things. Now that I'm older, wiser, and more proficient, things are coming together in a more promising fashion (relatively speaking, of course).

As for the Bordogni thing, I'm floored by that comment. What better tool to use for working on breath control, slurring, extreme registers, and even ear training? Where and by what means are students to hone these skills if not with Bordogni and similar works? This brings me to the issue that trumps all of these previous arguments, a realization which I was close to making independently but eventually heard made by several leading brass teachers both in person and in print. It is crucial to (a) use "real music" as much as possible in your practice, and (b) play everything musically and with artistic intent whether it is "real music" (excerpts, solos, improv, etc.) or not (scales, arpeggios, tonguing exercises, etc.). If you follow that advice, you'll be in good shape more often than not because, if nothing else, you will continue to enjoy playing longer and avoid burning out.