Sshh. There’s a hidden story quietly exploding in classical music. It’s the surprising evolution and adventurousness of American orchestras.
You wouldn’t read this story in the pages of the leading newspapers and magazines, most of which are in New York and apparently believe every composer lives in Brooklyn, premieres each piece at Le Poisson Rouge, and tweets after composing each measure.
You’d only see this from running the numbers on living composers. A proper accounting of composers being performed by American orchestras could only come from ASCAP and BMI, the performing rights organizations who track performances every day. In the top handful, you’d find several surprising things: the emergence of new faces, the rise of the self-published composer, and the field’s embrace of electronic sounds.
This is important for many reasons, not least of which is that any field should have an accurate understanding of itself. Beyond that, American orchestras, particularly regional ones, should get more credit for being more dynamic and courageous than the critical establishment realizes. And young composers should know that no, you don’t have to play by the rules.
In a way, you can’t fault the NYC publications for one simple reason: new music in New York City is not really about orchestras. Whether it’s uptown, downtown, or Brooklyn, the action is mostly in chamber music, from Columbia University to Bang on a Can to Alarm Will Sound. But with the dissolution of so many local newspapers, the remaining few like to think of themselves as the publications of record. There’s a tension between the locality of their masthead and their efforts to position themselves as national papers. While it’d be nice if the “big dogs” turned their attention west of the Hudson more often, the responsibility also falls on us in the field to look elsewhere. Other outlets around the country – such as ArtsJournal, the San Francisco Classical Voice, The View From Here, I Care If You Listen, New Music Box – have been more powerfully impacting the conversation with every passing month. The more we read them, the more they’ll grow – and a more balanced view will emerge.
That balanced perspective would encompass the huge variety of orchestras, especially the unsung regional ones, where the heart of classical music beats. It’s not just about sound; it’s about listening. The symphonic space demands a uniquely focused listening perspective that we rarely experience anywhere else in the 21st Century. Not every piece needs to be a magnum opus – an opener, whether John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine or my own Mothership, is light by definition – but the works must withstand the internal attention of an orchestra and the external attention of a couple thousand active listeners. And when you get to longer, symphony-length works, you can really travel to trippy places.
To be clear, I love chamber music. It definitely deserves to be written about, and its lean forces encourage experimentation. For example, the chamber music of Anna Clyne, Anthony Cheung, and Marcos Balter is wonderfully rich and provocative in unique ways. But an outsized amount of attention is focused on the “Brooklyn house style” of post-minimalist indie-rock. The latter mindset is best illuminated by some head-scratching comments by Nico Muhly: “I’ve always found the best thing to do is to make work that doesn’t have to happen in a huge space. I think it would be fine if major orchestras closed.”
Now, I think the world of my old classmate – he walks on water, changes water to wine, then walks on the wine – but in this case, he’s misunderstanding one of the best things about our field. Symphonic music is about large spaces, it’s about deep listening, and yes, it’s about the grassroots network of wonderful orchestras around the country. Each one has unique qualities. It’s not fine if a single one of them closes. To be fair, the Rev Dr Muhly posted a lengthy clarification on his site – which you should read – and I sympathize with someone who feels their words have been de-contextualized.
But his opinion is a common one, especially among non-symphonic composers. It’s totally fine if a composer wants to churn out a million notes a year, or if a rock artist wants to riff over some drones or whatever. Those pieces might have nice premieres, but ephemera does not survive very long on the symphonic circuit. The top handful of symphonic composers – those getting above, say, forty or fifty symphonic performances a year – spend forever on each score. John Adams just entirely rewrote his concerto for string quartet, for example; on the other side of the Bay, I feel like I’m perpetually in labor with each piece. John is especially relevant in this discussion because he got into trouble for disparaging today’s “music lite.” It startled me a bit to hear this from the composer of Grand Pianola Music (though not City Noir), and someone of his stature should probably be magnanimous just about all the time. But coming from a stylistic shape-shifter, his opinion is highly informed on this topic (maybe a better term is the manufacturing phrase commodity hell: indistinguishable mass-produced items, such as disposable razors – or oscillating minor thirds).
In the past, the League of American Orchestras has admirably released a list of most-performed living composers. But the list’s persistent inaccuracy stems from its reliance on self-reporting from orchestras in the League, which doesn’t include many smaller groups who are playing tons of new works (for example, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project: their numbers alone would alter the list). We must all call on ASCAP and BMI to post their numbers.
What would the numbers tell us? They’d certainly demonstrate a move away from publishers. Jennifer Higdon, like me, most likely would have signed with a major publisher early on. But as she became so heavily performed, she probably realized that no publisher was worth half her copyright. That’s a lot of ownership to give up (for me, it means not having to get a real job). Kevin Puts, who won the Pulitzer and is becoming one of America’s busiest opera composers, has remained independent. Chris Theofanidis is another stellar composer busy with orchestras and opera companies. We’ve each had to creatively design our own model.
Publishers argue that, in exchange for owning half your newborn child, they promote your works to conductors and orchestras and manage your career. The latter task – negotiating contracts and appearances, providing valuable counsel – can certainly be handled by an agent. I would argue that you absolutely need an agent if you do not have a publisher. Composers never used to have them, but these days there are quite a few at various agencies. I started with Monica Felkel at Young Concert Artists and moved on to Mary Pat Buerkle at Opus 3. The latter has become such a key part of my life, I almost sent her my homemade eggnog this year (it would’ve involved FedEx’s live animal rates, due to the temperature issue, so I gave up). The nitty-gritty of negotiating rentals and handling sheet-music sales can be handled by an independent distributor such as Bill Holab, who does a fine job for me without owning any copyright. Some composers do it all themselves – cf John Mackey, who’s currently unloading a big-rig full of band music into the back of the building – a hugely successful non-symphonic composer, but one dealing with large forces nonetheless. I would argue that the less time you spend on spreadsheets, the more time you have for music – so, get a distributor.
But that other role of traditional publishers – promotion of your catalogue – is indeed hard to replace. It can therefore make sense to sign with a publisher if you’re young and do not have much exposure; they can help you break through. Once you reach critical mass, however, you may want to rethink your relationship. I’m not certain that publishers have the time or budgets to promote the huge amount of composers in their stables. For me, reaching critical mass came the old fashioned way: the conductors who helped me early on, from Robert Moody to Riccardo Muti, from Edwin Outwater to Marin Alsop, from John Adams to Michael Tilson Thomas and, most of all, Leonard Slatkin.
What else would the numbers show? That orchestras are open to new sounds and technology. Admittedly, I’m talking about my own catalogue here, but it’s one example of how orchestras can evolve. I don’t just mean the big ones either: when Sioux City performs The B-Sides, it’s a reminder that regional orchestras and audiences aren’t afraid to take chances (or use electricity). There wasn’t any widely-performed electro-acoustic symphonic music as a precedent, so I’ve spent many years observing orchestras and learning the logistics, the unions, and yes the big-space acoustics of integrating electronics into the symphonic space. Yes, you can break the rules – as long as you know what they are (except, um, union rules).
So, who will write this story? With the right numbers from ASCAP and BMI, any number of fierce new-music advocates could do it: Allan Kozinn, John von Rhein, Joshua Kosman, Anne Midgette, Kyle Gann, Norman Lebrecht, Andrew Patner, Frank Oteri, Greg Sandow, you name it : all could provide a fresh perspective.
This isn’t a New York story. It’s a national story. And it deserves to be told.
This is the time of year when I rarely go anywhere, when getting ‘dressed up’ is synonymous with ‘getting dressed,’ and when prime-time composing begins. But before I slipped into flip-flops and a new piece for Ricccardo Muti, I had to make two quick trips to orchestras I love.
First was a visit to the Toronto Symphony, which was giving the Canadian premiere of a work they co-commissioned entitled Garages of the Valley. I’ve been fortunate to have a long relationship with the TSO, one of the most vibrant of orchestras. My introduction to them came via John Adams, who beautifully conducted my ‘water symphony’ Liquid Interface, and I returned last season to perform Alternative Energy with the amazing Maestra Carolyn Kuan. But this recent visit was my first TSO premiere, and my first time working with music director Peter Oundjian.
This is a man who rehearses so thoroughly, who understands one’s music so intuitively, that a composer has gratefully little to say. Garages of the Valley conjures the workshops of the early tech visionaries, who invariably dreamed up the Computer Age in decidedly low-tech garages all over Silicon Valley. Eschewing the electronics so prevalent in my music, I wanted to create a piece that evoked a whirlwind digital activity by purely acoustic means.
Peter not only navigated the labyrinth of metric modulations that underpin the work, but he did a superb job of coaxing the micro-tonal, quasi-electronic sonorities that evoke circuit boards. I’ve always found it challenging to get my head around an “opener” — the short, often fast works that open symphonic concerts. The allure of The Deep Experience often pushes my pieces beyond the 9’ length that is required of a standard opener. Mothership was the first time I cracked the form, but it was time for me to offer an acoustic opener – and I think with a few minor cuts, Garages of the Valley is that piece.
The other work on the program, Shostakovich 5, was brought to life as superbly as I’d ever heard it. Peter managed to keep it powerful and poignant without getting bogged down, not an easy task for such a deeply conflicted symphony. (While it was written with the aim of getting Stalin’s approval, it is riddled with revolutionary subtext.) The touching performance struck me as particularly impressive given that this was one of the TSO’s Late Night concerts. A hugely diverse crowd of all ages showed up for food trucks and booze, yet when the concert started, these new-comers were enraptured by the performance.
After the premiere, I scurried back to San Francisco for a one-day familial appearance (can’t miss Father’s Day), then headed to Chicago to catch Maestro Muti conduct Schubert, Mozart, and Mahler. In the midst of a large new work for himand the Chicago Symphony, I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to watch them in action.
One may think of Muti, a Southern Italian, as a musician who conducts from the heart. But his southern charms are always complemented by laser-sharp rigor. He opened his rehearsal of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 by discussing his research into the bass solo in the third movement. With a pile of papers on the podium — and a facsimile of Mahler’s manuscript — the maestro presented his reasons for asking only the principle to play the solo. After laying out the evidence, he added the charm: this movement is “like a Jewish wedding,” he said, and at that time, Jewish folk were “too poor for a lot of contrabasses.” A punch line, yes, but in fact the solitary bass does indeed project a deeper, perhaps more authentically Jewish, sense of loneliness in that passage.
The concert that night featured two symphonies by Schubert, a composer not overly appreciated in that form. Often one looks to the songs and chamber music to spot the gems of harmonic originality for which he is best known. Muti, however, has made it something of a signature to explore underappreciated works in the repertoire. Whether it be Frank’s D minor or Schubert’s first, the maestro always makes a compelling case. For me, the highlight of the concert was the scherzo of Schubert’s sixth, apparently the first time the composer used that form orchestrally. (I became something of a connoisseur of Schubert scherzi when writing Mothership, which is based a the “scherzo with double trio” that he invented.)
Then I hopped on a flight back home. A wide variety of flip-flops await, as does the Anthology of Fantastic Zoology — a new work for Muti and the CSO that will be a kind of psychedelic Carnival of the Animals. Time to write.
"Be it mixing trip-hop and funk at a club or writing a symphonic or chamber work, composer Mason Bates is getting noticed for his straddling of classical music and electronica. ... Young, Juilliard-trained and already celebrated, he's become a fixture not only in concert halls but in the world of electronica as well. ... At a time when symphony orchestras nationwide are trolling for audience magnets - the type of new material that can lure members of generations X and Y along with older subscribers - Bates just might have that bait. " Concerto for Two Universes, Donna Perlmutter
"If Mason Bates' Rusty Air in Carolina is any indication, this 30-year-old composer (who is based in the East Bay and has a parallel career as a DJ) also has a voice...A Virginia native who summered as a teenager in South Carolina, his new work recalls sticky Southern nights, filled with the chatter and buzz of katydids and cicadas. ...You could feel the humidity, while luxuriating in Bates' exquisite, almost Impressionistic, atmospherics." -Richard Scheinin
"Contemporary composers can integrate high-definition recordings of sounds they want to evoke, as Mason Bates does in his cleverly constructed Liquid Interface. The first movement, "Glaciers Calving," begins with an ominous recording of glaciers crashing into the Antarctic Ocean, soon followed by dense, haunting swirls from the strings and electronic beats that accelerate to lively drum and bass rhythms. Mr. Bates's colorful four-movement tone poem, which uses a vast orchestra and electronics to evoke water in both soothing and menacing forms, received its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall -Vivian Schweitzer
“Mason Bates, 30 years old…knows how to command an orchestra just as well as he does his touchpad. Bates’s Liquid Interface, a National Symphony commission that received its world premiere last night, surpassed in sheer sonic beauty even the works by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky that rounded out the program.”
"Mason Bates's Digital Loom, for organ and electronics...transformed the hall into something between a decaying cathedral and an East Berlin club." -Alex Ross
"Take Mason Bates's Digital Loom for organ and electronics, a centennial commission. Definitely a voice from the younger generation, Bates reimagines the king of instruments as a surreal creature inventing its own space, the illuminated stops flashing like an enormous pinball machine and presided over by the organist as D.J. who programs wild sequences of hip-hop, funk, and ambient electronica" -Peter Davis
One of classical music’s best-kept secrets is let out of the bag this month. With the digital release of two commissions by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony – my Alternative Energy and Anna Clyne’s Nightferry – anyone with a laptop can be reminded of an oft-overlooked fact: the CSO & Muti are one of America’s most essential and vibrant leaders in new-music.
Surprised? Hopefully not, as both Muti and the CSO have a long history of bringing new music to life. But if you are indeed surprised to hear that Maestro Muti can rock out to 6-channel surround sound while keeping the CSO locked to his every beat, I have a hunch why. You likely don’t live in Chicago, maybe read just the NY press, and therefore only know about just one element of this fabulous dream-team. I love Verdi too, yet there’s so much more – but let’s start with the release, which is killer!
Once you download it (it’s digital-only, available at iTunes), the first thing you notice is the nifty cover art. It nicely combines the spinning motion of a particle accelerator (conjured in Alternative Energy) and the watery imagery of Anna’s Nightferry, beautifully capturing the sense of journey that each piece evokes, despite their very different languages. And then you hit play, and you’ll hear stunning performances by some of the world’s finest new music performers, stunningly mastered by multi-Grammy-winning sound engineer David Frost.
It’s a dream team bringing to life my biggest piece, an ‘energy symphony’ spanning four movements and hundreds of years. Beginning in a rustic Midwestern junkyard in the late 19th Century, the piece travels through ever greater and more powerful forces of energy — a present-day particle collider, a futuristic Chinese nuclear plant — until it reaches a future Icelandic rainforest, where humanity’s last inhabitants seek a return to a simpler way of life.
These worlds are conjured by a variety of symphonic effects. A blues fiddle accompanied by car parts dominates the ‘old-time’ first movement (the principle percussion, Cynthia Yeh, plays a ‘car part drumset’ assembled from scraps collected at a junkyard, while concertmaster Robert Chen conjures his inner Appalachian). Actual recordings of Chicago’s FermiLab particle accelerator appear in highly dramatic form in the present-day movement (think: massive machines waking up all around you). Surreal and trippy microtonal sonorities take us to the edge of a future industrial wasteland in China’s Xinjiang Provience. And gently out-of-tune, gamelan-sounding figuration, complimented by surround-sound jungle recordings and future birdsong, brings us to the far-off rainforest where the piece ends.
The piece takes the sprawling, imaginative approach to form reminiscent of Berlioz or Liszt, but with a soundworld informed by the Digital Age. My approach, in short, has evolved well beyond the initial influences of techno and EDM that arose from my DJ work. I still love DJing, and you’ll certainly hear plenty of dark techno in the third movement; but I’ve found many creative new ways to expand the orchestral palette as well.
That Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have given the piece such dedicated attention speaks volumes about them both. The premiere performances were just the beginning – they took it on tour in California; then to Michigan; then to Carnegie Hall; and now the release. Muti and the CSO have also given the royal treatment to Anna Clyne, my colleague in the post of composer-in-residence at the CSO, and they’ve presented more new music than just us (for example, the Solima double cello concerto this season). As the maestro told me when we first rehearsed this piece, he treats every new work as if it were written by an old master, spending dozens of hours pouring over every detail. His scores of Alternative Energy and The B-Sides are covered in markings and notes, and he disarmed me a few times by noting very obscure errors in, say, the second bassoon part. His new-music chops have come from a long history with living composers, notably with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Many composers know that he worked through some extremely complex post-serialist music there, but some remain unaware. That is probably understandable, since memories are short and Muti’s career has been long. He is a dynamic figure whose interests have evolved over the years, but just because he can conduct Verdi better than anyone doesn’t mean he can’t teach us a lot about living composers. Think about what a special challenge it was for this man to stand in front of his orchestra and a surround-sound array of speakers. As he told me, “I’m an old dog, but I want to learn new tricks!”
Beyond the maestro, the CSO itself has one of the world’s most important histories with living composers. The position of composer-in-residence was invented by the CSO when John Corigliano was brought on in the 1980′s; it was subsequently duplicated all over the country. This position is the most substantive I’ve encountered anywhere: in addition to all the work with the orchestra, the composer is given a free hand to develop the MusicNOW series. This 30-year-old series has become a real phenomenon, with upwards of a thousand people turning out on Monday nights to hear a completely new take on the new-music format. That’s quite something if you think about it. Anna and I have been grateful for the guidance and freedom given to us by Martha Gilmer, Nick Winter, Gerard McBurney — and, of course, the maestro as well. Muti instructed the entire organization to reach deeper into the Chicago community, and while I’m not sure he was expecting us to start pulling tons of techno freaks from the EDM scene, I know that he’s happy with how we’ve expanded.
Few people outside of Chicago are aware of this. The CSO has become such a Ferrari for visiting conductors – the place to do staples of the repertoire – that the field, collectively, sometimes thinks that the CSO masters only the old-school. The Chicago critics know exactly what’s going on with new music at the CSO, with detailed coverage by folks such as John van Rhein and Andrew Patner, but you’d never know it from reading east-of-the-Hudson critics. It was bold of Muti to travel to Carnegie Hall with Alternative Energy, a half-hour of electro-acoustic trippiness. But all one notable fellow wrote was, “Muti offered a kind of flashback to the programs of yesteryear” with barely a mention of anything but Franck. That kind of casual inaccuracy propagates a myopic view of an orchestra that is so much more than a showcase for “faded classics.” Everyone wants to advance the storyline they are already familiar with.
We think of a handful of orchestras and ensembles as new-music leaders, but there are many that are doing amazingly provocative stuff. It’d be nice if those who consider themselves tastemakers could take a little look around. Look at Detroit: those revolutionary webcasts have yet to receive their due nod from the tastemakers. Look at almost every concert in San Francisco. Look at regional places, such as Sioux City (Ryan Haskins) or Portland (Robert Moody). The CSO, too, could do more to showcase its important impact of the new-music life of this country; but we’re getting there. The Resound release is one example, and Anna and I are very thankful to everyone for making it happen.
Sometimes bigger isn’t always better. While I’ve embraced the symphony as my primary medium — even expanding it with electronic sounds when I want to turn it up to 11 — I always enjoy returning to chamber music, which is the focus of a new CD out this month called Stereo Is King (available at iTunes, Innova, or Amazon).
Chamber music is, in fact, one of the more surprising things that my residency with the Chicago Symphony has kept in sharp focus. In the midst of performances of large symphonic works such as Alternative Energy and Liquid Interface, I’ve been given wide latitude to create deep relationships with many CSO musicians on a more intimate scale. The platform has been our MusicNOW series, immersive and eclectic new-music concerts at the Harris Theater. My two commissions for the MusicNOW series anchor this new disc from Innova Records.
The title track, the percussion trio Stereo Is King (excerpt), embodies a new electro-acoustic approach. This piece juxtaposes the indigenous and the electronica, two visceral worlds that have surprising similarities and differences. On the surface, they are quite disparate: the dry, mechanical pops and clicks of breakbeat hit your ears completely differently than the rich, resonant sonorities of Thai gongs and Tibetan prayer bowls. But there are interesting ways that, say, West African drumming organizes itself not unlike virtuosic breakbeat rhythms. The charm of jungle and drum ‘n bass is that they superimpose a hyper-rhythmic layer on top of larger, slower-moving structures, and that too can be heard in those UNESCO field recordings of Uruguay tribes. Informed by both of those worlds, Stereo Is King ends up somewhere in the middle.
The other CSO-commissioned work is Difficult Bamboo (excerpt), a sprawling work for Pierrot ensemble. The idea was to create a work inhabiting a peaceful, pastoral minimalism – a kind of idyllic landscape – that gets invaded by a post-serial maximalism, embodied by fast-replicating running bamboo. Musically that comes in the form of infectious motifs that jump from instrument to instrument insidiously, at one point even turning into a kind of theater between the players. Thank you, Harry Partch.
Also on the disc is a stellar, pitch-perfect recording by Chanticleer of Observer in the Magellanic Cloud (excerpt), which depicts a satellite catching a glimpse of an ancient Maori tribe. The chorus, split into two groups, dissolves into a kind of analogue versus digital. It is the third work I’ve composed for this astonishing orchestra of voices, a continuing collaboration I’m honored to have.
Finally, there are two homages : the IDM electronica track Terrycloth Troposphere (excerpt), doffing a hit to minimalist pioneer Terry Riley, and a piano homage to Alan Lomax in the form of White Lies for Lomax (excerpt). Those early blues musicians would have remained anonymous but for the tireless efforts of the ethnomusicologist Lomax, and this work conjures those early musicians dreamily.
Many thanks to Innova Records, the most composer-devoted label out there, and to the musicians of the Chicago Symphony and Chanticleer who made this possible. Check it out if you want to hear the lean and mean.
Much of the Digital Age was dreamed up in the most low-tech of spaces. The garages that dot the landscape of Silicon Valley housed the visionaries behind Apple, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Google. Within the bright Valley’s dark garages, the great inventers of our time conjured new worlds propelled by an aspirational, affirmative vision of an interconnected civilization. All this in a windowless cube without insulation: that’s where imagination steps in.
I looked to those garages when starting to write a new piece for the St Paul Chamber Orchestra which will be premiered this month (the work is also commissioned by the Toronto Symphony and the Milwaukee Symphony and will be performed by them later this spring). Maestro Edo de Waart will be conducting, and his celebrated tenure at the San Francisco Symphony was one reason my mind went to Silicon Valley (he lived not far from it when many of those garages were bursting with energy).
The other impulse was a desire to shake up my own reality. Unusual forms and images often pull new sounds out of me – from my ‘energy symphony’ to a recent chamber work conjuring running bamboo – and I was looking for a way to synthesize new sonorities with a paired-down, unplugged orchestra. “Workshops of the tech visionaries” challenged me to write vigorous and visceral music that would also be filled with a kind of digital exoticism.
I’d been listening to the electronic-sounding (but entirely acoustic) music of Gérard Grisey, one of a long line of ingenious and disagreeable Frenchmen. His music has two elements that stop me in my tracks: its beautifully effective microtonality, and its stasis.
The two work in tandem, as a listener needs to enter a more meditative listening zone in order to fully enter the fractal-like world of microtones. (If your piano had 188 keys instead of 88, but covered the same range, you’d have microtones – ie, tiny intervals.) They can sound unpleasant as hell in the wrong hands, but Grisey uses them to achieve extraordinary sonic effects. I wanted in.
I also wanted energy: lots of it. We all have an image of zillions of lines of computer code whizzing down a screen, and I needed a way to bring that to life in a fresh and evocative way. Churning out figuration is not my specialty – that’s best handled by the Brooklyn minimalists – so I got busy figuring out how to develop on that front.
The resulting 10-minute work is the lean kind of piece I’ve been hoping to write for some years. It’s dedicated to Edo, who first encountered my music at a Chicago Symphony concert of Alternative Energy, and it will be a great honor to work with such a legendary figure. Stay tuned for excerpts, info about the St Paul premiere, and the upcoming performances!
You arrive at the concert hall just in time: the lights dim, the orchestra starts to tune, you shut down your digital life and settle in. Breathless from the hurry, you’re grateful for a few hours of sonic exploration. So: who has curated the experience you are about to have?
If you are lucky, someone like Michael Tilson Thomas, a master of the black art known as curating. My mind is on him after performing for several weeks at the SF Symphony, where I was the unknown half of yet another wonderfully provocative MTT set of programs, the Beethoven & Bates Festival. By marrying two related but divergent musics, Michael put both in greater relief. As he’s shown in continually new and adventurous ways over the years, curating a powerful classical experience is ever more essential in the 21st Century. With that festival fresh in my mind, and with a new MusicNOW concert at the Chicago Symphony this month, it is high time to talk about curating.
And nope, I don’t mean ‘programming,’ which seems too one-dimensional, as if one is creating a mix-tape. Let’s think of it more like DJing, with the entire experience crafted carefully and immersively. That curatorial approach has been the most wonderful part of my residency at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with composer Anna Clyne, with whom I’ve learned so much about the new horizons of concert presentation. It comes down to three words: content, production, and platform.
Those are not equal terms. Content, of course, reigns king, since the choice of music must guide all other elements. Ever been to a concert comprised entirely of post-indie rock minimalism? What about one with three different takes the spektral approach? Or perhaps a show where not a single piece includes standard notation? Yeah, me too.
Sure, it can be illuminating to attend a concert inhabiting one aesthetic, but it should be a rare event in my opinion, like a once-a-year “truffle dinner” or something. One of the great pleasures of a well-curated concert is how each piece shines light on the others, and often this happens when there is variety.
For example, often Anna and I search for an imaginative composer’s take on ambient music that can work between two dense pieces. We also think about what expressive spectrum a work inhabits. Process-driven pieces, from Boulez’s Sur Incises to Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, often benefit from having a warmer aesthetic represented (such as the stunning Living Frescoes by Kevin Puts). Meditative works can range from the quietly revelatory (John Luther Adams’ The Wind in High Places) to West Coast zen (Lou Harrison). Of particular interest to us have been theatrical works, which often take the audience on strange adventures (Benedict Mason’s multimedia work Delta River opened this season’s MusicNOW series). Ordering these becomes a part-intuitive, part-rational consideration of instrumentation, vibe, and extra-musical thematic relationships (which can create great synergies but can be overdone – I was once programmed next to Pines of Rome because I was living in Rome at the time – !).
The production part of the equation is rarely explored anywhere, but the Chicago Symphony has long been beautifully producing concerts as part of the amazing Beyond the Score series. So the CSO was quite open to our suggestions about radically expanding the production of the MusicNOW series.
Anna has a sharp eye for multimedia, and I have an interest in smooth flow (cf: spinning records for three hours), so the resulting concerts are immersive and dramatic. The fancy lighting rig of Harris Theater is put to full use; program notes are cinematic, with video interviews of composers playing during set changes; and the concert flows naturally into the post-party, which features local artists. The stage management of the event is way more complex than your standard new-music event. We fill the formerly empty gaps of a concert with projected information, experimenting with new ways to educate the audience in a fun way.
As for platform? We partner with the local DJ collective illmeasures to provide the right kind of abstract, mellow electronica. It’s critically important that all the elements of the experience work together, so we ask for trippy downtempo and not cheesy house. These post-parties have become a wonderful new platform for the Chicago musical community, and it’s part of the reason these concerts bring upwards of a thousand people on a Monday night to hear new music. The festive post-party atmosphere adds social value to the whole experience, and it’s directly inspired by Maestro Riccardo Muti’s directive to take the deeper into the Chicago community.
The American impulse in classical music to better educate and communicate began with Leonard Bernstein, whose affable stage presence and forays into television made classical music more democratic. As Bernstein’s protégée, Michael has carried that to new and greater heights, including his stunning Keeping Score website & PBS specials, and his development of the ‘concert hall of the future’ in Miami.
But there are other great curators out there. Leonard Slatkin walked through the fire of Chapter 11 with the Detroit Symphony, rewrote the orchestral media contract from scratch, and is now broadcasting concerts weekly free concerts that look and sound stunning. Young guns are coming up too. Robert Moody, who conducts this month’s MusicNOW concert, has a knack for astonishing and fearless programming choices. Edwin Outwater is collaborating with composers on evening-long events that are in entirely new formats.
Classical music can harness more of the tools of the 21st Century to expand its reach and educate its audience. Let’s all keep open minds about the way we present it, keeping in mind that some of the biggest developments are happening outside New York. So, who’s curating your experience?
I embark this month on eight performances with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in the “Beethoven & Bates” festival, consisting of several of my largest electro-acoustic symphonic works alongside some of the warhorses of ol’ Ludwig. The lopsided pairing, which comes with an almost baked-in punch line (Beethoven who?), nonetheless provokes a discussion about the living animal that is the orchestra.
Think of a black-turtlenecked composer in the 1960’s, surrounded by several huge analogue synths amidst a sea of patch chords. That’s Beethoven.
After all, the orchestra is an acoustic synthesizer consisting of lots of third-party hardware. Fragmented development was the bane of Steve Jobs, but it’s worked just fine for the symphony, which means simply ‘a sounding together.’ That definition was pretty loose through the 17th Century: musicians showed up with something that made noise and, garage-band style, followed the charts. Early composers rarely specified exact instrumentation, focusing on the purity of harmony and counterpoint. Then, around Bach’s time, the first standardization emerged: the strings splintered into violins, violas, celli, and basses. What was once a few knobs on the synth soon became four, then five (the impulse to divide the first violins not unlike early rock’s ‘division of labor’ into lead guitar and rhythm guitar).
By the time Haydn and Mozart churned out scores of symphonies, the orchestra may have seemed relatively stable: pairs of winds and brass, a few tuned drums, the string section. But even when things seemed static, the orchestra was always being tuned-up under the hood. String instruments, for example, eventually stopped using cat-gut (that’s right, the technology behind the melodies was once the guts of cats). Mozart’s use of trombones in his Requiem is always given high marks in the evolution of the orchestra, not the first (nor certainly the last) of many sonic expansions by composers.
The brass, in fact, would be arguably the most impactful section of the orchestra for years because of the new harmonic possibilities it gave composers. Beethoven’s third horn in his Erocia symphony was, yes, just one more knob on the synth, but it was a crucial one that allowed for thicker chords. The woodwinds were also moving up the evolutionary ladder: if there’s a flying squirrel, perhaps it’s the contrabassoon, whose 18 feet of tubing magically opened up the sub-sonic.
At the end of Beethoven’s output, the orchestra gained an especially extraordinary addition: singers. When the chorus and soloists appeared in the finale to the 9th Symphony, they came with the wonderfully messy baggage of peace, brotherhood, and love. With singers came text, and with text came content. That’s ripe stuff for a composer, and Beethoven’s successors ran wild. Berlioz, in particular, embraced the pregnant possibilities of not just new sounds, but audacious new forms made possible by narrative.
Go into hyperdrive over the next two centuries of music, and all manner of new instruments pass by: Wagner’s tubas; Mr. Sax’s strange hybrid brass-woodwind; Strauss’s use of alphorn; Varése’s engorged percussion section. There’s no pomposity in adding the use of electronic sounds to this list of palette expansions, as it’s just another knob that’s appeared on the world’s greatest synth.
But I do find electronics a particularly rich addition. Its limitless rhythmic possibilities, especially when informed by the intricate grooves of electronica, make me feel a little like a 19th Century composer first encountering the chromatic possibilities of brass valves. And the dramatic possibilities are limitless too: a symphony about water, for example, can actually travel to Antarctica by using field recordings of glaciers calving. An archival recording of a NASA spacewalk can take us to the outer atmosphere of Earth. Maybe it’s not exactly like having a chorus in the finale of the 9th, but using electronics in the concert hall certainly throws open the narrative possibilities.
So come to the SF Symphony this month and the world’s greatest synth, with knobs old and new. Info here:
Jan 8 – 10: The B-Sides, orchestral suite informed by the ‘b-sides’ of psychedelic rock and the early modernism of Arnold Schoenberg. INFO
Jan 15 – 18: Liquid Interface: ‘water symphony’ beginning with actual recordings of glaciers calving in Antarctica and heating up in each subsequent movement. INFO
Hear Bates and Clyne talk about their new recording on CSO Resound: Bates' Alternative Energy and Clyne’s Night Ferry, both recorded by the CSO under Riccardo Muti. Listen to and purchase the album HERE.
Premiered by Anne Akiko Meyers & the Pittsburgh Symphony, the concerto exists at the intersection of earthy rhythms and long-lined lyricism.
September 21st, 2011