Saturday 2 July 2022

 rigor mortis

In the last several months, I've had the opportunity to hear premieres of several new works by several composers.  With some exceptions, I have been struck by, firstly, the similarity of some of these works, and secondly, by their seeming rejection of anything like discourse.

For me, the best music is music that wants to discuss something with me, or, at the very least, show me something I hadn't thought of.  In the most obvious cases, like Beethoven 5, there is a clear-cut process of exposure and development.  Beethoven presents the famous basic motive, and then goes on to discuss this, in the process showing us all the possibilities we would not have thought of ourselves.  In less obvious examples, like Piano and String Quartet by Morton Feldman, there is a beautiful and subtle evolution of detail from a poignantly presented central sonority, almost as though the composer is reconsidering his basic idea very slowly, gradually exposing more and more of the nuances.

Much of the new music I have been hearing is the opposite.  Almost none of it involves any kind of forward momentum-- rather, it seems content to expose some sounds (some of which, I admit, are truly beautiful) and then move on.  Any suggestion that the composer wants me to reconsider or think about what they have just let me hear is swept away as the work progresses.

Perhaps the most striking thing about much of what I've heard is the insistence on scales, repeated notes, and that very Hollywood ominous, swelling low register chord.  I remember having a conversation once with a very clever young composer who was deliberately avoiding any kind of motives, themes, development, etc., who felt that he was creating a work from texture, without reference to more traditional means.  I couldn't say I felt he was successful, but at least I respected the fact that he had a concept (albeit one based on a misunderstanding of spectralism.)  This is not true of much of the music I've been hearing lately.  So many works seem to be scales careening up and down (mostly up,) followed by short, sharp chords, interpolated with repeated notes, followed by "scary" low register growling.  The actual harmonic language seems not to matter much-- I've heard both aggressively consonant modal music of this type, and aggressively octatonic-y dissonant music of this type.

The net result is music that I just can't care about.  I can't retain it, and I don't have any interest in hearing it again.

And let me be perfectly clear:  these are very accomplished composers.  The instrumental writing is impeccable.  They seem to be doing exactly what they want to be doing, and they are doing it well.

I just wonder if what they seem to want to do is actually worth doing.

Is new music truly going to become New Age music?  Because that's how some of this comes across to me, especially the modal stuff.  The octatonic-y stuff isn't New Age, but it works the same way, washing over the listener and attempting to create an immediate impact without worrying too much about the big picture.

Yes, rigor is old-fashioned.  The rigor that defined what has come to be regarded as standard repertoire is very much a part of the past, part of a tradition that perhaps no longer applies.  Are audiences really not interested in discourse anymore?  Because I can't think of a single "standard rep" work that doesn't engage with rigor.  Even Debussy, the godfather of non-developmental music, couldn't completely forsake tradition.

Time will tell if this new music is relevant.

Monday 8 July 2019

probably we're just stupid

Over many years, in the course of my work, I have investigated quite possibly more than a thousand pieces of music.  I have done this for two reasons:  in my various positions, I have recommended repertoire, and I am personally very curious.

One of the things I have always wondered about is why the history of Western Art Music consists of about 500 pieces by about 50 composers.  Yes, there have been other works and other composers, but we no longer talk about them.


Part of me believes very simply that the music just isn't good enough.  That's an important distinction:  it isn't "good enough", it's not "bad".

Part of me suspects that there are more complex forces at work.  The enemy of popularity is unfamiliarity, isn't it?  Or is the real enemy of popularity a lack of quality?  If that's the case, why did works like "The Dance of the Hours" by Ponchielli become so successful?  It's pretty dreadful as music goes, although it does have a great tune.  Admittedly, many of these once-popular pieces have faded with time, but there's no denying that they somehow achieved great popularity for many decades, even centuries.

Was there some kind of conspiracy involved?  Were women composers from the 1800s discriminated against?  Did Chopin's supporters set out to destroy the legacy of Moscheles, who was considered to be a better composer in his lifetime?  Was William Sterndale Bennett shunted aside because he was an Englishman in a German musical world?  Are Canadian composers ignored worldwide because we're Canadian?

Or is the music just not good enough?

I am certain of one thing:  there are no, absolutely, without question, no undiscovered masterpieces out there.  There are no undiscovered genius contemporary composers.  There is a lot of music that's okay, even good.  There's a lot of music that we could listen to once in while that certainly won't offend us.

But it isn't good enough.

Monday 12 November 2018

death by common time

Last year, while on vacation in the south, I observed something that resonated with me.  We were in a private home on a beautiful inlet in Grand Cayman.  It was quiet.  The neighbors in the adjacent villas were quiet.

Then some low-grade sub-morons showed up a few villas up the bay.  On their first afternoon, one moron got into a pedal-boat, set up a small stereo system, turned on what appeared to be some kind of rap or hip-hop, and pedaled out into the ocean.

I say "appeared to be" because of course, it was impossible to hear anything other than the backbeat.  With a wind blowing and waves streaming, it was very likely impossible even for the dope on the boat to hear much other than the bass drum and snare drum.

And then it hit me:  he was organizing his environment into 4/4 time.  Being as intelligent as a bag of hammers, he couldn't stand silence (God forbid that he would have to be alone inside his own head), and it didn't really matter what he was listening to, as long as it was in 4/4 at roughly a metronome marking of between 108 and 120 (just enough to slightly raise his heart rate.)

And then it dawned on me even further:  daily, millions of people are organizing their subway rides, bus rides, drives, walks, meals, house chores, etc., into 4/4 time, all at about the same tempo.  It's a lubricant for their chaotic lives.  It is a kind of drug, a new Soma.

Pop music, for which I have a great fondness, has slowly devolved over the last two decades into organizing noise.  It is not a coincidence that bass and drum music--  oops, sorry, drum and bass music (one of my students pompously corrected me on that, because, seriously, it's very important to get it right), has done away completely with harmony and melody.  Because after all, if you're dumb as a tree, what do you need harmony and melody for?

It seems that people no longer really need the music, they just need the rhythm.  We have truly descended to a point of lowest common denominator.  And it's always the safe symmetry of 4/4 time.

Think about it:  how many hits have been in any other metre?  One or two, true, but certainly not many.  Even country music, where you used to be able to count on a good waltz tune once in a while, has gone almost exclusively 4/4.  More complex or changing metres are the purview of progressive rock, which does not appeal to a wide audience.

I continue to believe that some enterprising DJ could render Carter's Second Quartet palatable to a wider audience by doing a re-mix with a backbeat in 4/4 time.  That's presuming, of course, he or she could find the primary metre.

Oh, but wait, it might not work.  The quartet is longer than the three and a half minute maximum attention span of the ADHD generation.

John Cage had the numbers right, just not in the right format.  4/4 3:30.

Sunday 10 December 2017

so you sent a score to a Canadian orchestra-- part 3

It has been over a year since I posted last, largely because the new music situation in this country hasn't really changed, except that we're poorer and sell less tickets.  But I keep getting asked about access to orchestras, and I realized that not all the questions I receive were answered in my two previous postings about the subject (which you should read before you read this.)

Here are some questions I just received:

How can I put an orchestral piece on the radar of Canadian orchestras? The piece for Esprit went really well, and I’d love for it to continue its life with other orchestras.

Do “cold calls” (emails, score via mail) ever actually work?

Do you email the artistic director or orchestra staff?

Some of this I covered in the first two postings.  But I like the really general nature of these questions, so I'll try to answer in more detail.  I will answer the first question last, because it is the most complex.

Do "cold calls" work?  Probably not.  But......once in a while, you may get lucky and present yourself at a critical programming moment when whoever is doing the programming is looking for a work that fits a specific profile, and your work is perfect.  It's rare, but it happens.

If you are going to do a cold call, here's what to do:
Know who you are.  This is obvious, but apparently, a lot of composers don't understand it.  If you are a high modernist, look at the programming for a given orchestra and see if they do any high modernism.  If they don't, they probably won't look at your score kindly.  If they programme nothing but high modernism, don't send them your charming Suite from the movie "Happy Happy."  They won't like it.
Find out who the appropriate person is to contact.  At the TSO, we actually have composers trying to submit music to people in the ticket subscription office.  Do your homework-- there will be only one or two people responsible for new scores.  If there is a Composer In Residence, that's who it is.  If not, in a larger orchestra, it will be the Artistic Administrator (they can have various titles.)  In smaller orchestras, it may well be the conductor him/herself.  Don't waste your time with anyone else.  Do not submit your score to the librarian.  Do not submit your score to the personnel manager.  Do not submit your score to the CEO.
Send a good recording first, either as a link or as a SMALL mp3 file-- link preferred.  If someone has to download a 10 meg file, they won't.
Do not send MIDI unless you are really good at it.  Hitting play in Finale or Sibelius is not being good at it-- it will work against you.  You need to know how to perform your work into a Digital Audio Workstation with professional sounds, and then how to finesse it into something useful.
If you do not have a good recording of your work, remind yourself that life is unfair and that you never get any breaks, and that other people are out to get you, and that so many other people have what they don't deserve it's enough to give you a stroke.
Include a link to a score.  Do not email a score.
Both the above options can be accomplished by regular mail.  Send a CD with a score and it will likely end up with the right person.
Do not harass people.  I admit that there are times when being persistent pays off, but it will only pay off once.  Once you are off the back of the person you are harassing, they will talk about what a harassing pain in the butt you are.  Everyone in the orchestra community will know.
Be patient, and re-read the earlier posts about not making assumptions about what happened to your work.

I alluded to this above, but yes, you can certainly email the staff of an orchestra.  It is in poor form to try to directly email the music director, except when the orchestra is a small one, and even then, your first approach should be to determine who actually intercepts emails to the MD.

How do you put your orchestral work on the radar of orchestras?  Basically, there is not a lot you can do about this.  But here are a few suggestions.

Don't be shy, and don't be aggressive.  Letting orchestras know through the above methods that you are around and have some repertoire is a good thing.

Watch for reading sessions and calls for scores.  TSO does a regular yearly reading session with 3 to 5 composers, and the MD is always present.  It will probably not pay off immediately, but your name at least (if not the work itself) gets on the orchestra's radar.

Win a prize.  Not a piddly SOCAN prize that no one pays any attention to, but something more substantial, like the Azrieli Commissioning prize or the Barlow prize.  Orchestras notice this.

Get interesting commissions.  I can't be much more specific, but something like a cantata for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir will peak the interest of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Attend things.  Go to new music festivals.  It's expensive, but it pays off.  Go to the post-concert parties and talk to people.  Be someone they remember.

A word about specialized success.  Success with new music ensembles does not automatically translate into success with mainstream orchestras.  Success with the Esprit Orchestra will be noticed by CIRs, but probably not by MDs.  It's great that you had a success with Esprit, who are the most important new music ensemble in Canada and one of the most important in the world, but they are still a new music ensemble.  New music ensembles do not generally appear on the radar of mainstream orchestras.

Remember, re-read the earlier posts.  Be sure that the orchestral world is the world for you.  And good luck.

Friday 25 March 2016

has it come to this?

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the relevance of "Western Art Music".  We know that orchestras are having huge problems selling tickets, we know that classical music sales seem to be waning, we know that audiences are growing bored and disinterested.  There is some implication that pop music, on the other hand, is going wild, becoming more and more successful with each passing day.

I disagree.  Consider how pop music is used.  When I was young, a new Beatles album was a thing to be anticipated.  When the album came out, we would listen to it repeatedly.  I remember hearing Abby Road about 15 times when it was fresh.  Most importantly, it was listened to live, not through earphones, which were quite rare (and expensive.)  The fidelity was as good as the stereo you could afford.  You could jump up and down and dance around the room to the music, singing along with it, if you wanted to do so.

Where has pop music gone now?  First of all, it has become, plain and simple, a commodity.  No one-- absolutely no one-- can pretend that contemporary pop song writers are on the level of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc.  What are people buying?  They are buying a pre-packaged product off the shelf, one that will deliver no surprises, but which will give them exactly what they expect.  It's just like buying toilet paper.  The music is bland, folks.  Let's admit it.  It all sounds the same (within each genre.)  There are no great melodists out there.  The risk-takers are all gone (now that Bowie is gone.)

More importantly, where is pop music used?  Clubs, where it is not the central focus any more.  During the disco era, the clubs existed for the music.  People went to the clubs to dance and socialize using the music as a common ground.  Gradually, drugs crept in, and gradually, the experience of dancing to the music in a club became going to a club as an event that involved, among other things, some music.  Club-going is not a musical thing anymore.

And the other significant use of music is even worse:  portable players.  20 years ago, portable players were fairly large and fairly rare.  The miniaturization of these players into pods and phones has made them ubiquitous.  But it has done something much more insidious:  it has driven users into their own solipsistic world.  I remember very well having a Sony Walkman in the 80s, walking down Bay Street, listening to the Security album by Peter Gabriel.  It remains, to this day, one of the weirdest experiences I have ever had.  Hearing the Ghanese and Native American drumming, to the exclusion of all other sound, while walking through the Bay Street office towers, was beyond surreal.  I never did it again.

Every single younger person does this now routinely.  We live in an autistic world, where we cut ourselves off from everything around us.  We plug those phone ear buds in, crank up the 4/4 @ m.m.108 and withdraw.  Everything about our world is withdrawn.  People don't talk to each other anymore, they text.  The horror of the original Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie Pulse is coming true:  our souls are retreating into our electronic devices.  Is this really music, or is it a drug?  Or something worse?

I used to think that beer was Soma.  Now I believe that contemporary pop music is Soma.

Western Art Music concert music, especially orchestral concert music, is not comfortable the way Soma is.  Contemporary music is even less comfortable.  I repeat:  dissonance/consonance, tonality/atonality, these are not problems anymore; unfamiliarity is the enemy, and that goes for even the most accessible music.  Pop music, now that it has become homogenized, is a comfortable product, entirely predictable, without any nasty creative touches to upset people.

Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Sunday 27 September 2015

conducting part 2

I grew up with the legendary conductors still alive.  I remember seeing Fritz Reiner and Leonard Bernstein on TV as a child.  Bruno Walter was still alive when I was 8 years old.  I didn't really have a sense of who they were, but I knew that the music they were making was remarkable.  And I have vivid images of both Reiner and Bernstein doing the most amazing things while conducting-- Reiner barely moving the baton, and Bernstein getting an orchestra to play by flaring his nostrils.

The "great maestro" began with Mahler, although he really just refined the image which had already been created by Wagner, Von Bulow, and perhaps a few others.  But Mahler is arguably the first contemporary "maestro".  He was supreme boss.  His word was law.

In my youth, this model was how conductors operated.  There are endless stories about conductors behaving badly, from torturing members of the orchestra through assaulting female soloists to staggering on stage so drunk they can't see.

The dynamics of the orchestra world have changed over the last several decades.  Conductors still behave badly, but the days of such ruthless entitlement seem to be over.  Players in orchestra will no longer tolerate abuse quietly.  A conductor who staggers on stage drunk will not get hired back.

In the middle of the 20th Century, the "great maestro" was something that a certain kind of person aspired to be.  I remember very well some conducting students who under no circumstances should ever have been allowed to conduct.  They were not interested in music-- they were interested in being a "great maestro".  This kind of person still exists, but it is more and more difficult for them to get serious podium time.  Contemporary orchestras expect respect, professionalism, and artistry.

The "great maestros" were surrounded by mythology.  I remember Erich Leinsdorf visiting a conducting class in Toronto, sitting across the room, and, without a score, referencing a specific horn problem on page x in measure y in a Brahms symphony.  The students were in awe.  But of course, Leinsdorf had probably conducted this work somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 times by this point in his life.  It would have been more surprising if he couldn't be so specific.

It has also been interesting to see how the teaching of conducting has changed.  "Old school" conductors continue to teach by emphasizing in depth score study.  Almost nothing is said of stick technique.  And while I deeply respect making the music itself the most important thing, the truth is that no one without the innate talent in the first place will evolve into anything like a conductor this way.  Most conducting students need a good swift kick to the butt about their technique.  Contemporary conducting teaching has recognized that knowing the score inside and out doesn't make you a conductor.  If the orchestra doesn't understand what you are doing, it doesn't matter how well you know the music.  Stick technique matters.  The days of Fritz Reiner moving the stick a millimetre in each direction are gone.

It is a changing world for conductors.  The job of Music Director has become incredibly complex, with boards, donors, governments, management, and all sorts of other non-musical matters looming large on a daily basis.  It will be very interesting to see how conducting evolves as the art changes, and as financial pressures become more and more of a burden on the institution of the orchestra.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

conducting, part 1

These next few postings are not really just about new music, but they are pertinent.  A few events occurred recently which got me thinking about the art of conducting, and my relationship to it.  A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of doing the "colour commentary" for a dress rehearsal of the Verdi Requiem by Sir Andrew Davis and the TSO and Mendelssohn Choir (impossible to explain what "colour commentary" is in a few sentences.)  This past Monday, I conducted a performance of the Pärt Cantus with a pickup orchestra of Toronto's best players, drawn from the TSO and the COC and National Ballet Orchestras.

Sir Andrew Davis is one of the greatest conductors on the planet.  He is musical, technically flawless, and has a personality which is perfectly suited to dealing with the massive forces required for a work like the Verdi.


What does it mean to be "musical" as a performer, especially as a conductor?  This is simple, really.  A musical conductor has ideas about the music.  I know this may seem self-evident, but it cannot be taken for granted.  There are many, many professional conductors out there who do not have any ideas at all about the music they are conducting.  They can lead performances, flap their arms theatrically, and look good, but they bring nothing to the music.  In standard repertoire, it is possible to get away with this, because a) you can learn how the music goes from several great recordings and just copy them and b) the orchestra knows how the music goes and really doesn't need you if you have no ideas.  In new music, having no ideas is a disaster.  A conductor needs to bring an interpretation of even the worst piece of new music.  Just zooming through and playing exactly what is on the page is deadly dull, and turns a bad piece into a worse piece.  Boulez would claim that this is what he does, but of course, he doesn't-- his powerful personality is clear in the way he does things, even if he doesn't speak and purports not to interpret.  And by the way, many people believe his recordings are, to quote someone's poetic simile, like an x-ray of a beautiful corpse.  But I digress.

What is an "idea" about music?  It can be many things.  In a new work, it might involve trying to figure out how to make a longer line than might actually exist on the page.  How do I connect the beginning of this score to the end?  Can I find textural or motivic elements that I can colour similarly at the beginning and end?  The slow movement of Webern's Op.24 is an excellent example of how a conductor might shape an idea:  the drooping thirds in the calando passages can all be played the same way, or a conductor can make a psychological journey out of them:  the first few are more intense, the middle few are less intense, and the last few are the most intense of all.  This is just an example.  What is an idea in standard rep?  A conductor must decide on the character of a work and do what it takes to emphasize this.  For example, the opening of Mozart 40 could be dark, could be petulant, might even be slightly funny like Prokofiev, or it could just be the excuse to get to the major key second subject.  The conductor needs to know what he thinks, so he can ask for the right length of staccato in the accompaniment, the appropriate degree of accentuation in the main line, etc.

Technically flawless:

Just what it sounds like.  An orchestra needs to understand every move the conductor makes.  If they don't understand something, the conductor is doing something wrong.  This is where we encounter some problems with the mythology of conducting, which I will deal with in a later posting.  There were so many conductors in the 20th century who had eccentric conducting styles that young conductors often start to believe that stick technique doesn't matter.  Just watch Fritz Reiner conduct.  But making a rule out of exceptions is not a good idea.  (I see red anytime some counterpoint student tells me "But Bach used parallel fifths."  Right, 100 times in a thousand pieces.)  Clear technique matters.  But expressive technique also matters.  There are many people who can wave the stick clearly, but can't modulate it.  Technique is also fluid-- a conductor needs to be so in control of his/her stick that it can sing.  This obviously also applies whether or not the conductor uses a baton.  Of course a conductor needs to know how to conduct and break pauses, do ritardandi, etc., but he/she also needs to know how to move from staccato to legato, how to encourage and discourage, how to release control and let the soloist play without hindrance, and a million other subtleties which lesser conductors cannot master.  I remember watching Jukka Pekka Saraste conduct many times.  In standard rep, particularly in Mozart, his moves were less about stick patterns than they were about expression.  But when he conducted new music in changing metres, his stick technique became a textbook of clear patterns.


Ah, here we have it.  I cannot say how many people I know who are musical, can wave a stick fairly accurately, want to conduct, have experience, but who just aren't conductors.  There is a huge, huge difference between conducting and leading a performance.  Any good musician can lead a performance-- very few musicians have the right personality to be a genuine conductor.  The most classic case of the un-conductor is the ego maniac who just wants to be in charge.  Then there is the guy who knows he's right, and charges like a bull anytime any player challenges him or doesn't do what he's asked.  There's the mean guy, who isolates only the errors and keeps picking at them.  There's the nice guy, who just wants people to like him.  There is no end to the various wrong personalities that can afflict would-be conductors, and the most amazing thing is that these people typically remain oblivious for the rest of their lives as to why they didn't get to be a conductor.

Conducting is handling people, not just music.  Sir Andrew had a small problem with a soloist who was constantly rushing.  He never lost his temper.  He did not pick on him.  He carefully and respectfully corrected the error a few times, encouraging him to do it correctly, not badgering him.  In performance, it was fine.  Again, the foolish old-school mythology does not help any more.  Being a tyrant is not the best way to work.  Good musicians want to get things right.  I have seen idiot conductors stop constantly through the first reading of a score to point to errors.  For heaven's sake, let the players read the darn thing once or twice before deciding something is a problem.  When I conduct, I always assume an error is just a one-time thing.  If it happens a second time, I correct it.

It takes a lot to be a conductor.  After all the musical things, there is this question of personality.  And not just in the handling of the orchestra.  The life is a very demanding one, and survival is difficult for anyone not equipped the right way.  Being a composer is tough, too, but at least we can retreat into our autistic little world and pretend we're misunderstood geniuses and that we'll be recognized long after our deaths.  No musician is more visible than a conductor, and accepting the responsibility for all that is necessary is a huge strain.  I cannot communicate just how demanding it is to step onto the podium of the TSO.  Every single person in that orchestra is a superb musician and a professional, and they expect the same from you.

More to come.