Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Future Past Present: Composer Salon Live

It's time again for another Composer Salon. The last one in September on the topic, The Audience was a good time with a lively and fun discussion. The next Salon is:

Tuesday October 20, 2009 from 7 pm to around 9 pm at the Brooklyn Lyceum (227 4th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn). The Lyceum is literally above the Union Street M, R Train stop in Brooklyn. The Lyceum does have various inexpensive libations including different beers, wine and other non-alcoholic beverages, as well as coffee and baked goods. 

Salon Topic #2: With some topics I read on various blogs recently (which you can find the links to below) I thought the subject of where classical music and jazz are headed to leads to this month's Salon topic: Future Past Present. This quote from Hannah Arendt, which I think I first read in the liner notes to the Dave Douglas CD Five, seems to fit with my thinking about where both classical and jazz at the moment (or at least where it should be going): 
There is an element in the critical interpretation of the past, an interpretation whose chief aim is to discover the real origins of traditional concepts in order to distill from them anew their original spirit which has so sadly evaporated. 

I. Pat Metheny in his keynote address to the (now defunct) International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) convention in 2001 challenged musicians “to recreate and reinvent the music to a new paradigm resonant to this era, a new time.” Not to recreate the past, but to push and remake music of and for our own generation and time. Like the first line in the Stephen George poem Entrückung that Arnold Schoenberg set in his groundbreaking Second String Quartet, I also feel the “Luft von anderem Planeten" ("the air from another planet"). There does seem to be something in the zeitgeist where “artistic” composers and musicians are thinking beyond genre and really seeing the popular music of their times as valuable sources of inspiration (let alone for plain guilt-free enjoyment). I'm actually very excited with what is happening with this development in art music (something that I, along with many in my and younger generations have felt along) but frustrated in the continued old ways and thinking that seem to dominate much of the cultural artistic space. I am hopeful though because like Sam Cooke sang, "a change is gonna come..." 
How do you address Metheny’s sentiment in your own work? Or do you feel it is even important to do this?

II. In an interview years ago composer John Adams was asked the question: What's your opinion of the future of the orchestra? I think his response was quite telling coming from one of America’s leading composers of orchestral music: “When people ask that question I have to be quite blunt: I think the orchestral tradition has pretty much come and gone. There are periods in which a certain artistic genre sees a birth, a flourishing and then an eventual decline. It doesn't matter whether it's Elizabethan drama or Italian madrigal or the Homeric epic. Every genre eventually passes from the scene. Orchestral music reached its peak around 1900, and there's been a period of natural decline ever since. Look at how few substantial additions there have been to the repertoire since 1950 - it speaks for itself.” 

From my viewpoint it seems that orchestras and orchestral music is quite entrenched, well at least as far as cultural dollars go. In the comments of a posting on Greg Sandow’s blog about classical music’s presentation problem, I said, “Certainly the large classical institutions draw a lot of financial oxygen from any market. $10,000 or $20,000 might not make much difference to the NY Phil, but make it an easily available grant to a hungry new music outfit, I think you would immediately see more diverse, daring, interesting (not always successful, but that's ok) programming that would attract a more diverse (racially, aged, and economically) group of people, especially if they aren't charging $50-75+ for seats, and would feel more real and relevant to the listeners.” In our society with its unacknowledged plutocratic tendencies, seems like that entrenchment isn’t going to change anytime soon. In the jazz world, Jazz at Lincoln Center operates much like the jazz equilvant of an orchestra organization. Larry Blumenfeld wrote about J@LC in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago and also in a blog in a post about Jazz at Lincoln Center. I commented on his blog, I think that J@LC does deserve credit for raising the bar for jazz in the upper crust circles that previously would never consider jazz worthy of support. However, with such a mark of status, J@LC could be so much more. I think there is frustration that the conservative attitude at J@LC by freezing jazz in amber freezes out many great musicians who don't fit the model. And without any real choice or competition, there doesn't seem to be any (or very little) institutional avenue for more contemporary and progressive takes of what jazz is. The only major jazz institution with any clout really is J@LC and that's frustrating. In the classical world, sure you can have some fundamentally conservative and cautious organizations like the NY Phil and the Met (both which are disappointing in similar ways as J@LC, although under Gelb at least the Met is moving in a different direction), but that is more than offset by other adventurous organizations such as the SF Symphony or even Bang on a Can. Where is the Bang on a Can-like organization for jazz? If there were some competition for the 'jazz dollar', some other high profile organization to take on music/groups/composers that which J@LC won't or can't, some one other than Wynton to be able to bend the ear (and get the eye) of Obama and Clinton, I bet there would be less animosity toward Wynton and J@LC because he wouldn't be the only gatekeeper, his voice would be balanced by a competing voice.
Just as you could never have a working class person run for state-wide offices in today’s society because the amounts of money needed for a campaign, how can the non- institutional groups, ensembles, performers of classical and jazz many of which often are pointing to new and exciting directions for the music (and where my hope for the future of the music lies), ever hope for the recognition and dollars (which in itself can represent status), if they don’t have the resources to compete? Sadly in many ways, this seems to me a class struggle between the haves (large orchestra and opera companies or J@LC in the jazz world) and the have-nots or has a little (smaller organizations and ensembles) fighting for survival in genres that generally speaking, very few are listening to or are much interested in.  
So since classical and jazz are just niche markets that are shrinking in the music marketplace, have we hit that decline that John Adams talks? As Greg Sandow says in the above blog post, is it the music or the presentation? If we change either, will people listen and the music become more relevant? More listened to? Where is the music going and what is it evolving into? Do all of the social networking media, blogs, and direct marketing over the Internet affect what classical and jazz are? Will become?

If you are a composer or musician or music lover in the New York City area, I hope you'll consider coming down to the Lyceum and join the discussion, or at the very least add your thoughts in the comments. Hope to see some of you on the 20th.


janiscortese said...

Hm, part of what had occurred to me while I was reading Greg's wonderful blog was just what you zeroed in on here, "Are we talking about the death of classical music, or just the death of the symphony orchestra?" They're sort of intertwined in a lot of people's minds, understandably enough since that's a major career path for the people who learn to play the stuff.

-- Janis

Numinous said...

Janis, years ago I read Steve Reich's Writings on Music 1965-2000 and reading your questions reminded me of something he says in the book which I was struck with at the time and particularly now in light of our discussion and the Salon topic.

First, one question on a questionnaire from Musiques en Creation, Festival d'Autome, Paris in 1989 was about Contemporary Music and Institutions. Part of Steve Reich's answer was:
"Immediately on finishing The Four Sections, I felt very clearly that I had no further interest in writing for the symphony orchestra in the foreseeable future. I felt that, finally, most of the clichés about the orchestra are true: It was designed to play the music of Haydn through Schöenberg, and does not reflect at all the impact of microphones, non-Western music, jazz, rock, computers, electric instruments, and so on. That is to say, in its bones the orchestra reflects eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe..." He goes on to add, " There is also the 'sociology' of the orchestra, undoubtedly connected to the music it plays, which also means that somewhere from 20 to 80 percent of the players would rather not play my music nor the music of my contemporaries."

From there he talks about how other smaller ensembles such as Ensemble Modern or the London Sinfonietta are set up (and more importantly) interested in performing contemporary works and that is where he cast his lot for the future.

Looking at today's contemporary music landscape, there are many young ensembles and groups (Eighth Blackbird, Alarm will Sound to name two) who aren't looking back but seeing now in all its multi-, cross-genre glory. They see popular culture and music of today, not as a source of ridicule (which, admittedly sometimes it is) or something to neglect or ignore but as part of the messiness of our times, worthy of exploration, manipulation, and respect. I mean if someone like David Lang, with his background and credentials (not to mention wonderful music) feels like "a weirdo" in the classical music world then something is wrong (although I'm sure now that he's won the Pulitzer, the new perception of him now in that world means he is getting (at least a little) more love...).

Secondly, the other quote from Steve Reich comes from a question from The Musical Times in 1994 about "The Future of Music for the Next 150 Years". The end of his answer pertains to your orchestra question:

In terms of problems, orchestras are having their share here in America. Audiences are diminishing and getting older. I for one would like to see the kind of change suggested earlier by Ernest Fleischmann and others, namely, that we have fewer but larger musical organizations performing in larger geographic areas and with a repertoire ranging from Perotin to the present rather than [the] much narrower one presently in place. " He describes how basically it would be combining early music, romantic orchestra, new music ensemble (with different music directors) all under the same larger umbrella. While he doesn't directly state this, the implication seems to be that some different music would/could be presented together. He says that this might not be a solution to the audience problem but it would be a much more "lively musical life."

Numinous said...

Janis, it is really hard for me to see orchestras going away, at least anytime soon. Like the big band in the jazz world (which is now in the midst of a revival of sorts, although it never really went away), composers will want to write for masses of people; it is visceral fun and just plain cool to stand in front of a large mass of people playing euphonic and/or dissonant sounds. I guess, does that really mean it has to be the instruments of the orchestra instead of so other organized mass? I mean if you want to hear Mahler or Wagner (or the score to a Hollywood blockbuster), that's hard to do without a full orchestra (although I remember the defunct EOS Orchestra doing Wagner in a scaled down instrumentation). Plus, you allude to the "sweat" investment involved of so many musicians, not to mention, the financial investment of concert halls and performing arts centers in cities (in a way, sort of like how new sports stadiums are seen as a trapping of a "major" city) and just plain cultural tradition. With all of that and the fact that I think there will always be some need for orchestras (maybe in the future they'll be like early-music ensembles are now, specializing in a niche part of the larger "classical music" or whatever it will be called) however, I do see truth in the words of both John Adams and Steve Reich.

You mentioned on Greg's blog about a background in opera and while I've been to a handful over my life (mostly contemporary), my opera knowledge is woeful. I'm curious, though, do you feel that John Adams' statement about the decline of orchestras is the same for opera? In instrumental music, at least you can downsize, have an ensemble and perform but with opera being a resource and personnel hog, how can a young "start-up" ever hope to get it performed? seems to me opera will turn more into a niche genre with the young theatrically minded composer turning to musicals, where there seems to be more likelihood of performance on a DIY basis?

janiscortese said...

LOTS to think about, and unfortunately I'm at work :-), so not much time for more than a cursory comment.

Opera ... I'm not sure. It's got the massive advantage to its audience of lack of anonymity of the performers. People go NUTS over singers, in all genres. If you want to see perfervid, totally over-the-top deification, you can either google Maria Callas or Steve Perry. And people go to operas to see specific performers, not just hear the music.

Opera's also got the advantage of having staging and costumes as entire areas to have fun and be innovative and surprise an audience.

It's also captured the pop and rock imagination in some powerful ways; there will almost always be duets between opera singers and some improbable popular singer like John Denver or Loretta Lynn that expose enormous numbers of people to voices they wouldn't hear live. And someone's always doing what they call a "rock opera" in one place or another. Drama through music seems to be a compulsion, even if its a musical like "Mamma Mia" or that Billy Joel staging. ("Moving Out" I think?) People love telling tales with music, like a concept album.

Startups are tough to say -- original operas, I mean. The latest major innovation isn't startup operas but the rediscovery of Baroque opera, works that are up to 400 years old. They've mined the far distant past for innovation ... but again, the advantage they have is that people go crazy for the singers. Individual musicians in an orchestra are almost meant to be anonymous, but Andreas Scholl or Deborah Voigt will sell out ANYWHERE. The male singers in Baroque also have no small "sex appeal" since they have extremely high voices or sing falsetto, which people adore. They sound very "modern" to people's ears since those types of voices only existed in popular music for the past century and a half.

So there's a lot of mechanisms at work in opera that make it hard to compare to the symphony. The old war-horses like "La Traviata" and "Lucia di Lammermoor" are starting to waver, but people fundamentally love watching actors flounce around in gorgeous costumes in creatively staged sets and romancing one another while singing beautifully. It's got dimensions to it that 110 people in penguin suits sitting still don't have. A picture of even the best orchestra on the front of a CD won't allow each face to be more than five pixels wide, but you can slap Luciano's mug on anything and it'll sell. It's more personal. Voices somehow hit people differently since they are associated with individuals who can then be made into celebrities.

And it's close enough to staged plays that there will always be an infrastructure for opera companies to piggyback on if they want to get stuff done. Actually, it might be easier for experimental companies to get stuff done than for the larger companies that have to do everything themselves rather than bum things off of the local university theater arts program.

It's a complicated question, and this is a pretty off-the-cuff response. I'll have to do more thinking about it. But opera's got some weird dimensions to it that make it hard to predict its future. It's much, much older than the symphony orchestra, which is a fairly recently invention (late 1800s to early 1900s?), and it's lasted through enormous upheavals of musical styles. The first thing strictly called an opera was written in 1609, and the first embryonic opera was 1600. The fact that people can attach faces and celebrities to individual voices seems to give it a peculiar staying power, even if favored voice and music types come and go.

I don't know ...

janiscortese said...

Still thinking about this ...

Back when the first near-opera was written in 1600, it was the Renaissance and they were trying to reconstruct what they thought was ancient Greek theater. They got it wrong, but through trying to reconstruct it though, they invented something.

And the guy who wrote it, Jacopo Peri, said that the stuff that followed wasn't really opera.

And the stuff that followed that was called not really opera by opera lovers since it was composed of expansions of the short little "two-reeler" plays that were used to fill in the intermissions of the big "real" operas. And it was written for ordinary people in cheap seats and not academies or nobility.

And the stuff that followed that wasn't called "real" opera by opera lovers since it was too sordid and tacky. And then there was Wagner, who nobody knew what to make of since his work was so musically and dramatically unified.

Nowdays, opera lovers say that Andrew Lloyd Webber isn't "really" opera. There's barely any spoken dialogue, and the whole thing is filled with set piece arias, though. It seems like the only reason people say it's not opera is that it's in English.

The only thing that seems to make opera is a play through music, with sung dialogue, and even the latter part can be fudged. It's not really an Institution like an orchestra so much as an entire style of entertainment, and it's survived so many different types of presentation so far. It's been called dead every time there's a shift in presentation, and it keeps surviving -- even though some of its forms aren't acknowledged as opera until years later. Rossini was the Webber of his day, and nowdays he's called a classical musician.

And again, there's the attraction of individual performers. It occurred to me that when I mention the recent performances I've gone to, I don't say, "I went to hear Haydn's symphony in Em and a bunch of arias by Haendel, and then some stuff by Rameau" or "I went to hear a bunch of Bach cantatas."

I tell people, "I saw Andreas Scholl," or "I saw David Daniels." This November, I'm not going to hear "Tamerlano," I'm going to see Placido Domingo in "Tamerlano." There's a way in which singers appeal directly and non-anonymously.

It's a bit like what Greg discussed on his blog (maybe another commenter brought it up first, though) where people concluded that what orchestras need to survive are strong, attractive personalities that people can focus on -- Bernstein, Stokowski and Ormandy, those types. Opera's got that built in. You don't go to hear music, you go to see people.

Even people I know who aren't fond of opera and who wouldn't want to sit through three and a half hours of it will buy CDs of famous arias by favorite singers. I've gotten a few people interested in Baroque opera by showing them excerpts of some DVDs I have, and what reels them in is the individual singers. "Wow, she sounds GREAT! Who's he? He's hot!" It's not as abstract and removed from the people who create it. Orchestral music is almost on a separate plane from the people who play it, and they are almost supposed to fade from awareness; the music almost exists independently of them. Opera is viscerally connected to individual faces. I think the only major problem it has is that it's just too damned long in most cases for most people. Even I'll only rarely watch a DVD straight through. Usually it's the first act one night, then the second and third the next night.

I think opera's just ... weird. It's almost half a millennium old, it's gone through so many morphs so far, it's always only understood about a century after it's finished, and it's got singer-personalities embedded in it. The operas that are staged may change and die off (the Baroque operas were barely ever staged for over two hundred years before today, and now they've roared back), but the idea of telling a story on stage through music and sung dialogue seems pretty permanent.

Hm ... more thinking out loud here ...

Numinous said...

Reading your comments about opera having personalities while orchestras, besides the conductor, don't, reminded me of football. Go figure?! When you go to a football game or watch on TV you don't really see the player's faces as they are performing. Except for their numbers (which you'd only really see on the Jumbotron) they are as faceless as that 8th cello player in the last row or the 2nd bassoonist in the middle of the orchestra. The difference is that there is a whole industry of analysis and coverage that despite not seeing their faces as they are playing game time, you do know who that left tackle or defensive line person is, what they play like, and sometimes what kind of personality they possess. Maybe the orchestral world needs to show more personality but I don't know how that would happen, since it seems the whole idea of the orchestra is as a collective (whereas maybe the opera is like an all-star team full of defined personalities?). Maybe trading cards? blogs? twitter accounts? Even with any of that, you still wouldn't 'see' their personality come through their performance like you might in opera, which is what I think makes people connected to them (I mean why are orchestras still in tuxedos? I mean even suits and dresses which would SHOW some individuality and personality could be more interesting. Maybe would be like a costume in opera, where you can see some 'flair' from the orchestral member. With orchestra the personality now seems to be the music or composer (or director). This is something that needs to change?

I have taught younger kids and have often read the children's book, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin where yes, it shows the NY Phil members getting ready to go to work. It is interesting because the book shows various individual members at their apartments putting on clothes, brushing their hair, saying good bye to love ones and pets, and traveling to Philharmonic Hall (I think the book was from the 60s). To me (and to the kids I read it to) it is makes the Philharmonic more interesting to see that they are "real". That, yes, they do have various quirks and personalities that makes a connection to the reader.

But opera for being full of personalities (in a society that likes celebrity) is still pretty much isolated and marginalized in the general (and younger) public. Sure musicals seem more of a common man endeavor, with more connection (whether by subject, sung in English in a more 'pop' way, performed in a theatre as opposed to OPERA HOUSE) but with opera considered a more elevated form, it is hard to see any crossing in the critical and cultural divide between musicals and opera (although someone like Sondheim has seemed to break through a bit). I mean I can never see Andrew Lloyd Webber being considered Rossini, even though I think you might be right about the connection at least in popularity. Maybe opera's future is closer to the musical than it would like to believe.

Jiří Pára said...

I don't feel qualified to enter this discussion, just a little side remark on the scaled-down arrangements of Wagner's grand orchestra music: Have you heard what Uri Caine did with Wagner (on "Wagner and Venezia")? They played these symphonic opera overtures and interludes with just a five or six piece chamber group. Interesting experiment, yet in my opinion not fully successful, as it doesn't have the physical impact of a full orchestra playing the Tannhäuser overture etc... (maybe it still worked best with "The Ride of the Valkyries", because in that case the melody of the piece has been so often used that it has become a kind of pop tune already, and a pop tune can stand any kind of re-interpretation).

janiscortese said...

Short-short comment: I wish I could bet you a steak dinner that Webber'll be considered a classical musician in a hundred years, but if we're still around, I imagine we'd be in the strained-pea category rather than filet mignon. :-)

Numinous said...

Jiří, thank you for reading and commenting. I have listened and enjoyed much of Uri Caine's reworking with Mahler and Bach but haven't heard the Wagner. I'll have to check it out. But in my mind, Uri Caine stripping it down to 5 or 6, makes it something else for me (in a good way) because he is playing with the ideas of those composers, transforming them into something sort-of old, sort-of new whereas the EOS Orchestra, I mentioned in a comment, did it pretty straight, just less instruments than the original. That's when things seem less successful to me because as you point out, the impact of 100 versus 10, always makes the music feel less, no matter how well arranged for the instruments. To me one of the reasons to go hear Wagner and Mahler is to see the spectacle (again, in a good way) of the sheer size of the forces required. I think that is part of what the music is and to reduce that, makes it lose something in translation (again, no matter how well done). I do think your thought about Valkyrie and it's migration into the popular culture is right on. Sadly I never went to the Amato Opera here in NYC before closing (which was famous for stripped down versions of opera repertoire), but I wonder if opera, because of its melodic nature, works much better in a smaller stripped down orchestration than orchestral music would?

Janis, we could make a Long Bet about Webber, although I think in 100 years that free-range, organic steak will be enjoyed by my designee!

Jiří Pára said...

Numinous, the problem with Uri Caine's Wagner is that it is much more "tame" than what he did to Mahler etc... It is more in the style of just stripping down to small instrumentation, rather than transforming the base material. But you'll see by yourself, maybe you'll disagree and hear transformations that have escaped me.
Could it be that opera works with small instrumentation, because modernism (i.e. Stravinsky's 'Soldier's History') gave us chance to get used to it? But probably there were always low-budget opera companies, which were forced by economic considerations to perform small group arrangements, I don't know.