race and the arts

Barack Obama’s speech on race was one of those rare political occurrences where the discourse was elevated. If you haven’t yet read it, you should.

While the speech and the subject is being discussed and dissected virtually everywhere you turn on the net, it isn’t surprising that the arts neighborhood is uniformly silent. It’s just one sign of how so many aspects of the arts, especially music, are disengaged from culture.

I’ve just finished reading Alex Ross’s excellent book, The Rest is Noise. Ross compellingly shows how black composers were systematically denied opportunities at the beginning of the century in the U.S. Most either became bitter (and)or migrated towards popular music. Once white America took notice of successful blacks, and invited them to their classical world, many blacks declined.

Paul DiMaggio has written (“Cultural Entrepreneurship in 19th-Century Boston”) about how the upper class developed arts institutions in this country as a means to isolate themselves from society at large, particularly the growing immigrant population.

As composers continue to struggle with the notion of relevance in terms of broader culture, most turn to binary discussions of whether popular is good or bad. The bigger issue for me is how we can become relevant when we (historically) have done so much to be exclusive.

Elliott Carter/Phil Lesh interview available

Counterstream radio has placed a streaming link to its interview with Elliott Carter and Phil Lesh, which I mentioned in a previous post.

Counterstream is a wonderful online radio station for contemporary American music, mixing heavyweights and newcomers in equal measure. It also has a number of interviews available for streaming.  It’s “ON DEMAND” series links artists from different genres, so far pop and concert music, who themselves have some link. Besides the Carter/Lesh program, there is also an interview with Meredith Monk and Björk. The Special Programs page has links to other interesting broadcasts, but you must tune in at specified times to listen. (no archive)

Interesting radio interviews upcoming

Announcements for two interesting radio programs just crossed by inbox.

On Friday, March 14th at 3pm (ET), Elliott Carter and Phil Lesh will be interviewed together on Counterstream radio, the online radio station of the American Music Center. On Sunday, March March 16 at noon PT (3pm ET), UCLA radio will feature experimental electronic(a) composer Carl Stone.

The show should be interesting, and more than a little mind-bending for people who rarely venture outside of their personal pleasure genres. Carter is a titan of 20th/21st-century modernism, whose music features beautifully layered material highlighted by complex metrical relationships. Lesh is best know as the bass player for the Grateful Dead, whose live shows spawned legions of faithful “Dead Heads” that followed the band across the country. But Lesh has a significant background in contemporary art music, studying with Luciano Berio at Mills College in the early 1960s. Along with classmate Steve Reich, he formed an improvisation group that blended acoustic and electronic music with theater. According to Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise, he dropped out of composition to play bass for a band the would become the Grateful Dead after listening to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony while tripping on LSD.

BSU's 38th Festival of New Music

The Ball State University School of Music will hold it’s 38th Festival of New Music, March 20 – 22, 2008, featuring guest composer Thomas Wells, and guest performers Benjamin Sung and Jihye Chang. It’s a healthy dose of mostly regional new music, with a strong mix of acoustic and electronic offerings.
More information, including a complete schedule, is available through the festival website. On a personal note, the Saturday night concert features another incarnation of my barely-controlled laptop piece, Bent Metal.

There will be Jonny Greenwood

Jonny Greenwood, guitarist with Radiohead, has been garnering some solo attention recently. He’s the composer for the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood. The movie has garnered Oscar attention (and nominations), although not for the music. Time magazine had a brief, positive blurp about the music. The BBC review of the soundtrack (pre-movie release) was mixed. From what I’ve seen of the trailer, the music is very effective.

Wordless Music produced the U.S. premiere of Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver last week (which a great deal of the soundtrack for Blood is based on). There was a pre-concert article in the NY Times, and a concert review.

Wordless Music delves into genre mixing, with a philosophy that there is common ground between experimental classical and experimental rock and jazz. Usually there is a pairing of rock with classical chamber music. This concert made the juxtaposition of Greenwood’s works with two early minimalist pieces by John Adams and Gavin Bryars. While this pairing might not have made the most sense (Greenwood’s piece isn’t really minimal at all), the concert series has been a success. It’s also worth noting that Greenwood isn’t dabbling, like a Paul McCartney or a David Byrne (of the Talking Heads). Greenwood is trained violist with an avid interest in the music of Olivier Messiaen. While he sometimes develops his orchestral works through multi-layered improvisations in the recording studio, he handles all aspects of orchestration and notation himself. And the genre mixing seems to be paying off. The concert review notes the most recent performance was “packed.” And as I’ve posted before, younger audiences are interested in classical concerts that feature music by composers closer to their age, not the mindless classical pop that older symphony boards think will draw them in.

Doctor Atomic

Doctor Atomic, the opera composed by John Adams with a libretto by Peter Sellars, closes this weekend in Chicago. Premiered in 2005, the current production has been tweaked slightly, and has met with excellent reviews in the NY Times. I’m hoping to catch it in its current incarnation next year in Atlanta.

The opera focuses on J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Trinity Project, which led to the first test of a nuclear bomb in New Mexico during World War II.

Adams burst onto the opera scene with his 1985-7 work, Nixon in China. He now has composed six operas, and is arguably THE major contemporary force in American opera.

Marin Alsop, Gender and Race Politics in Music

Alex Ross has written about Marin Alsop, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony, in The New Yorker. The hire has been hailed as the first woman to conduct a major orchestra in the United States (with “major orchestra” meaning one that plays year-round).

Alsop is a big supporter of new music. Ross writes that “in previous appointments [she] has shown a knack for charming both players and audiences into enjoying music that they think they won’t like. She has become a star, in part, by making composers the stars.” After recent years of financial struggles, Baltimore has gotten on board with the idea that modernizing the repertoire, along with aggressive marketing, can lead to a bigger audience.

It’s noteworthy when Ross writes that orchestras aren’t necessarily sexist in not hiring women conductors. He says that “the classical business is temperamentally resistant to novelty, whether in the form of female conductors, American conductors, younger conductors, new music, post-1900 concert dress, or concert-hall color schemes that aren’t corporate beige.” While Ross is probably correct about the situation today, it would be wrong to think that it never existed.

That last paragraph warrants a whole post (or more) at some point. Also on the burner is a reaction to Ross’s writings on race in The Rest is Noise. Pointing out that racism virtually excluded the participation of blacks in classical music in the U.S., blacks developed their own art form – jazz. After establishing an art of their own, many saw no need to try to gain access to the white world of classical performance. Now, music schools, symphonies and the like are wringing their hands over what to do about their institutions that hardly resemble the rest of American culture.

New Year's Resolution

If there is anyone still out there reading this, I’m making another run at restarting my blog. In fact, I’m making it my New Year’s Resolution, which almost insures its future failure. Right now I’m starting up a new semester of teaching (2 sections of music theory-20th century, one section of computer music-max/msp, and some composition students). I’m reading The Rest if Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross. It’s wonderful so far. I’ll post something more resembling a real review once I’m done.

Along the way I’m trying to attend to my lagging compositional output.

Happy New Year!

It's Grammy Time, eighth blackbird style

The nominations for Grammy Awards were announced last week. While the classical category nominations get lost amid the pop hoopla, major kudos go out to eighth blackbird for their nomination for Best Chamber Music Performance! Their album, strange imaginary animals, was recorded at Ball State University in the summer of 2005.

Two other people related to the project also received nominations. Jennifer Higdon received a nomination in the Best Classical Contemporary Composition Category for Zaka, and Judith Sherman was nominated for Classical Producer of the Year. In the producer category, each person had 4 or 5 CD’s noted. In addition to Sherman’s work on strange imaginary animals, she also produced releases by the Kronos Quartet and the Ying Quartet.

The members of eighth blackbird are understandably exuberant.