Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Fly Me To The Moon

I've been running around the last few days in that last-minute panic that happens before the semester starts, when the need to get ready to teach stages a pitched battle with your desire to just crawl under the covers until Christmas. I've also got a department retreat, a concert to hear, and then I'm off to Reykjavik for a festival week. After an insanely busy, sedentary year, I finally took some time off this summer to unplug my brain and travel. At this point I'm kind of sick of being away from home, but I've been looking forward to this trip for months. With space tourism in its zygote stage, an experience for bazillionaires only, going to Iceland seems to be the closest regular people can get to leaving the planet. (If only.) I absolutely can't wait.

The festival in question is a pretty good one, focusing on young Nordic composers, and rotating from country to country each year. I'm not usually one for New Music gatherings, which is not to say that they're inherently bad. At their best, they can be wonderful events where people get to trade ideas, hear something radically different from what they get in their local artistic climate, visit new places and drink until they can't see. At their worst, composers-only festivals are pretentious circle-jerks, boring and insufferable. So far, I've had pretty good luck with this one, in terms of having fun and getting good performances, with last year's festival being marred only by an untimely case of salmonella poisoning, which kind of put a crimp in my week. The location this year, though, rates pretty highly on the cool scale, so I'm anticipating a good time in any event.

I mention
New Music festivals and communities in general because last week, in his gentlemanly plug of my blog, Kyle Gann had me leaning "toward the minimalist/new music side of things". Not to read anything in particular into Kyle's offhand comment, because I didn't think of it as a label at all, but until I read that I hadn't thought of myself as taking any particular stance, or even leaning toward one. If anything, I've always considered myself solidly mainstream in my tastes and aesthetic leanings. I've done some music that can be considered minimalist, or at least minimalist-influenced (I'll leave aside for the moment the debate over the term at PostClassic), playing with stasis and quiet, writing pieces where nothing ever really "happens", but damn me if I don't love a big tune and some pounding chords from time to time. All I've ever really wanted to do was write orchestra music, knowing fully well what a conservative medium it can be, aesthetically and organizationally. But I'm comfortable with that, as with the fact that my pieces end up programmed alongside standard repertoire as often as they do in New Music-type events. (Not that I get oh so many performances, but one of each type every year is still 50-50.)

I suppose the point of this ramble is that it's just funny how you see yourself, as opposed to how you may come off to others in certain contexts. Fence-sitting is something of a characteristically Canadian trait. I do my best, in my composing and in my arguments, public or private,
to maintain a balance between the mainstream and New Music ends of things, or even between the various strands within New Music. Although a long string of teachers tried to get to me pick sides – populist or innovative, modernist or traditionalist – I never saw the need for it, except perhaps to advocate for good music as opposed to bad. If to one person I appear to lean toward the New Music end of things, that's great. I hope I speak well for my colleagues in the profession, and defend their right to have their innovations given a fair hearing. But I also hope that to someone else, I'm a fire-breathing defender of old-fashioned ideas and ensembles like the symphony orchestra, or an advocate for the audience's right to like the music they pay to hear. Drawing from many possible arguments enriches them, just as many aesthetics living within one person's work enriches the art. There was a poet once who said something about containing multitudes, and it strikes me as a path of right living. I may pick a side and go down fighting someday, but for now, the view from the fence is pretty good.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Clap Yo' Hands

I stopped by the library at SibA a few days ago to check out the crop of new CDs the summer had brought in. I spied a newish disc of choral music by Eric Whitacre and, given that choir is kind of my thing lately, decided to sample it. It's not really my taste, a lot of slow chorales and the like, but it's heartfelt and undeniably pretty. It must also be gratifying to sing. The piece that really resonated with me is the title track, Cloudburst. Most of the first half features the unaccompanied voices, but toward the end of the piece, a battery of piano and percussion chime in, with the choristers clapping, snapping fingers and slapping thighs to simulate the sound of a rainstorm. It's tremendously effective, and I love hearing composers make singers use their bodies in choral works. Most of the time, this kind of extended techniques get used in "fun" pieces, like folk song settings or music that uses humorous poetry, stuff that's easy for the audiences to accept. It's nice to hear a composer create an entire section or a big texture in a more "serious" piece out of extended techniques. It doesn't get done nearly often enough, what with cliché traps like the aforementioned slow chorales and wrong-note Renaissance polyphony looming large over the medium. Aside from the spastic clarinet-like acrobatics and self-conscious babble the modernists tried to inflict on the choir in the mid-century, very little "serious" choir music makes use of extended techniques in an organic, structural way.

I've never really understood why this is. Maybe choral music, being largely an amateur activity, tends to attract more conservative performers, and conservative composers as well. (My evidence, I admit, is mostly anecdotal, based on attending choral festivals and competitions.) But it's not the only reason. Many times I've been disappointed by choral music written by seriously far-out composers who spend their lives extending the timbral and expressive range of instruments, only to turn to the choir and write something utterly conventional, squarely in the comfort zone of the Western voice. Does the perceived conservatism of the medium tempt composers to condescend to it? It seems unneccessary, given that more often than not, producing complex sounds with an amateur or non-professional group is a matter of simplifying the notation rather than the aesthetic. This applies equally to the timbral qualities of the voice. Why does so much vocal music cater to the bel canto paradigm? While it can be beautiful, the bel canto voice is also seriously limited in the timbral sense. (Yes, opera fans, I hear you moaning and rending garments. Now back in your hole.) The human voice is capable of so much more, coloristically, expressively, technically
(cf. Meredith Monk, anyone?). Why doesn't this get explored in any systematic way in the choral repertoire?

It's something I've been trying to do with my recent choral music, the integration of extended techniques like whistling, whispering, overtone singing, Mongolian kargyraa (fundamental singing), different vocal timbres, and the use of body movements as structural rather than SFX elements in a piece. So far, I'm pleased with the results – although finding a kargyraa guy on short notice might make it tough for most choirs. But I haven't heard much other new music that attempts this, using the choir as an orchestra capable of a huge variety of timbres and sound production methods, rather than simply as a vehicle for text. Which is why I was pleased to discover another person who's into similar things, however different our aesthetics may be. Whitacre also has a keen interest in the poetry of Octavio Paz, which gives him bonus points in my book.

This truncated sally into the pitfalls of choral writing is just that, a beginning. I have a commission coming up for mid-length piece for the Helsinki Chamber Choir, which will be my first work for a pro choir. I'm excited about the possibilities of the project, and will most likely come back to the topic of choral music repeatedly in the next few months, hopefully with greater clarity of argument.

Soho Quiz #2

Props to Matthew Guerreri for creating yet another diverting waste of ti... er, enlightening quiz. For what it's worth:

1. What's the best quotation of a piece of music within another piece of music?

Not the most subtle or elegantly set up, but it's gotta be the Tristan quote in Debussy's Golliwog's Cakewalk.

2. Name the best classical crossover album ever made.

Uri Caine's Mahler album, hands down. (Sorry, which way was the crossover supposed to go?)

3. Great piece with a terrible title.

Kindertotenlieder. How cheery.

4. If you had to choose: Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett?

To be the black sheep, I'll take Tippett.

5. Who's your favorite spouse of a composer/performer? (Besides your own.)

Does Peter Pears count?

6. Terrible piece with a great title.

The Book with Seven Seals.

7. What's the best use of a classical warhorse in a Hollywood movie?

Beethoven's 9th in Die Hard.

8. Name the worst classical crossover album ever made.

Anything involving Il Divo.

9. If you had to choose: Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye?


10. Name a creative type in a non-musical medium who would have been a great composer.

Ernest Hemingway. Can you imagine the weltschmerz?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Man of the Hour

I'd like to give a shout-out to my dear friend David Hackston of The Late Review, who was awarded Finland's state prize for literary translation today. David has an enviable set of talents, a true Renaissance man: he plays the viola in numerous ensembles, is an accomplished, forward-looking composer, speaks more languages than I can count, and does a mean Barry Manilow cover at karaoke night. But his main occupation is the translation of Finnish literature and theater, and he was duly recognized for his body of work promoting Finnish culture in the English-speaking world. I and all his friends couldn't be happier for him. Kippis!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Potato, Potaato

Yesterday evening I had the good fortune to get into the dress rehearsal for the local première of Kaija Saariaho's recent stage work, La Passion de Simone, a sort of semi-staged oratorio based on the life – death, actually – of French philosopher Simone Weil. It's not my intent to review it, since this blog isn't about that. In many ways, I didn't get to hear the piece under optimum circumstances. For starters, Helsinki's Finlandia Hall was not the best place for such a reflective, ritualistic piece. I understand the economics of putting a new work by a big-name local composer in the biggest hall in town, since Saariaho has the rare ability to draw a big crowd to a new music event, but the music wasn't particularly well-served by either the acoustics, which are famously bad, or the visual setting. A church like Temppeliaukio might have worked better, but is too small to sell enough tickets to make such a large-scale performance viable. Also, I had only a vague idea of what the piece was about, and didn't have a libretto since it was a rehearsal. In hindsight, I should have read up on it a little more. The acoustics and high voices made the French text hard to understand at times, and the surtitles were rendered in an extremely poetic Finnish, meaning that the grammar was even harder to parse than normally.

Despite all this, I enjoyed it immensely, though it took awhile to figure out why. I generally like Saariaho's music, and even love a lot of it. This piece featured her most detailed, richly textured orchestral writing since her earlier diptych Du cristal... à la fumée, though in the much more meditative, lyrical vein she's been mining in the last few years. Even though it's largely static, there's always something moving under the surface, and the scoring, as always, had a lovely transparence to it.

The crux of this post concerns a review I found of the piece from its London première. Andrew Clements
(fie!), who seemed not overly impressed with the piece, writes:

"But despite a few vivid, short-lived climaxes, the general pacing is measured and unvaried; a character whose life was so much in her mind offers few obvious dramatic highlights."

I find the way individual perceptions work fascinating. Before even reading this, I'd commented to a friend that, although I understood the rationale for having climaxes at certain points in the piece, I would have preferred to have the musical landscape be entirely featureless. The colors were so absorbing that I would have been happy to sit there floating in it, like watching light shimmer on the surface of a lake, as in this painting of Klimt I recently viewed live for the first time. Can I chalk this up to European versus North American artistic values? Protracted quiet and stasis seem to be vaguely taboo in Europe, as if it's somehow sinful or decadent for a piece to lack drama and activity, and the American composers who are most valued here tend to be on the more dynamic, explosive side, whatever their aesthetic stripe. (I think Feldman gets a pass because his music is atonal.) To me, though, the criticism of a piece for lacking the obvious types of drama – big climaxes, jagged lines, overt emotion – is just a knee-jerk reaction in favor of the more traditional signposts of heightened emotion. It's entirely possible for a piece to be dramatic without actually being loud. But then, so much criticism of new music tends to be about what a piece isn't, rather than what it is. What it comes down to is that whatever expectations the critic brought into the performance about what should happen weren't met by the piece, and rather than take a positive point of view based on the experience the new work actually offers, the piece is deemed unsuccessful. Can we please stop doing that?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Perfection or, As cooking is to composition

Tonight I made a perfect meal. I'm not bragging. Much. There really is a point to this, however circuitous it may seem at first. I was at a loss as what to cook, and it had been a while since I'd had both the time and inclination to stand over the stove and fuss with food. I'd thought something with chanterelles, since they're in season in these parts. But passing the fish counter at my local box supermarket, I spied the best-looking piece of salmon I've seen in ages, and I had to make it mine. The rest of the menu came together quickly.

I made a thyme risotto, starting with oil, shallots, carnaroli rice and vermouth. (Most recipes use white wine, but super-dry vermouth is cheaper and more flavorful.) I added stock, stirring carefully, keeping the rice moist and letting the stock absorb slowly. I was pissed off when my last risotto turned out dry because I left it too long, and I was determined not to let it happen again. At the end I stirred in a lump of butter to make it creamy, a dusting of parmesan for tang, and some seasoning and fresh thyme leaves. The salmon came out of the oven at exactly the right time, a delicate crust of sea salt and white pepper on the surface, the fragrance of the lemon oil I rubbed into it present but not dominating. The texture was the best part: cooked through at the extremities but still tender and moist, warm but still almost raw in the center. A salad of oak leaf lettuce and arugula, dressed with walnut oil and red wine vinegar, was a cleansing complement. I'm still drinking the excellent, shockingly cheap '06 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc I picked up on a whim. (Note to wine buffs: fill your cellars with '06 Kiwi Sauvignon.)

I write this as a longish segue into the idea of perfection. Every so often, I'm able to walk into the kitchen and execute a technically perfect dish, sometimes even a full meal, as with tonight. I'm a big fan of chefs like Thomas Keller and Gordon Ramsay, who write at length about the technical processes necessary to make a dish perfect. Keller especially has a Zen-like approach to cooking which, as pretentious as it sounds, is really quite rational. He writes in great detail about the chemistry of food, and what certain processes do to ingredients as they cook, the effects of temperature, time, type of heat, etc.
Keller also has a very down-to-earth attitude toward the idea of perfection. Perfection, he writes, doesn't exist. As soon as you achieve it, it's gone, shifting to a higher level. In order to reach it again, you have to start over from scratch. (I said it was Zen-like.) He tells a great story about learning to make Hollandaise, a finicky, time-consuming sauce that utterly baffles me, by just making it over and over again, always trying to refine it to its ultimate incarnation, and never feeling it was quite right. Great food isn't always so much about top-notch ingredients. Those are nice when you can get them, and anyone can take foie gras and make it taste good. But more often than not it's about taking something ordinary and, through the rational application of craft, achieving something extraordinary. Great cooking is about transcending the ingredient.

There's something in this idea that intersects with composing, I think. I frequently find myself nonplussed when looking at a score of a piece I like for the very first time. Those great sonorities I heard in a performance or on a recording seem banal on paper, the shimmering colors I was hoping to gain insight from turn out to just be a diatonic pitch set of some sort, or a simple atonal structure. What makes it special is the way the composer uses it, the way one idea moves to another, the way an utterly ordinary harmonic idea suddenly appears in a fresh light because of the thing that came before it. I tend to study scores for hints on chord voicing, introduction of new ideas (on the rare occasions I choose to do such a thing), or orchestration. For this reason, I think that, apart from technique, spontaneity in the use of materials is the determining factor in whether music is merely successful and well worked-out, or downright brilliant.

When you're cooking, technique is paramount. There's a sequence of steps in making braised lamb shanks that can't really be skipped if you want to develop the flavors in the right way. This is what we call craft. Equally important is knowing by sight, smell, and touch when to do certain things, knowing the precise moment at which doing something will make the difference between a good dish and a great dish, but if you follow the steps, it's hard to go wrong. I once had a conversation
with a couple of senior Finnish composers – thou shalt not drop names – about why so many composers seem drawn to cooking as a hobby. Both of them were enthusiastic home cooks, and we spent some time rhapsodizing about making stock, tending a slow-cooked dish while sipping a glass of wine, and prepping fish for sautéing. I think what it comes down to is the difference in the ratio of craft versus creativity inherent in the two pursuits.

Composing, no matter how much technique you may have, tends to be largely a product of the moment, a flash of an idea that gets the engine moving, and technique supports the idea by giving voice to it, an audible working out of that flash if you will. No matter how great your technique, you can't survive on that alone if your ideas are uninteresting. The composers I most admire are the ones who can take a totally run-of-the-mill, simple idea and present it in a fresh and unexpected way. In cooking, while there's room for creativity, there's a certain process that must be gone through in order to achieve quality. Follow that process, and you rarely mess up. After a day spent in the studio, during which you may or may not have made any progress on a piece – progress sometimes being measured in tiny, tiny increments – you can still walk into the kitchen, apply a technique, and achieve something perfect, or at least close thereto. Herein lies the appeal of cooking and other like hobbies for creative artists: the result. A result. Something tangible, in which the progress can be measured and quantified, which beings pleasure and enjoyment, something in which the inspiration of the moment helps, but really is secondary to just applying the process. While I was working on my god-awful, hard-to-write, due-far-too-soon horn trio last winter, nothing gave me more pleasure, and more relaxation, than going into the kitchen and spending three hours on a pot of lamb shanks, teasing the sauce to the perfect level of reduction, waiting till the meat falls off the bone. It was satisfying to walk away from an activity in which technique only gets you so far, go through the pantry, and make something incredible. I've had similarly satisfying, though far less successful experiences with pottery. (Rule #1: Never get attached to your piece.)

Your mileage may vary, of course. I tend to get hyper-involved with my material, and have difficulty viewing it dispassionately. Perfection in composing, for me, is often a question of just giving up on getting it the way I want and letting the piece be what it is, settling for what does the job, knowing I can choose to fix it after I've heard it. But having another outlet for a certain amount of creativity is welcome, and knowing I'll get some sustenance from the result is what keeps cooking from being the same kind of frustration that composing can be. I now pause to wonder whether, if I spent as much time reading about music as I do reading guys like Keller, I might find composing a tad less daunting.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Le Tombeau de Gustav Mahler

It felt a bit odd to start a blog and immediately skip town. I was only away for a week, but on my return, the weather in Helsinki had decided to make another stab at summer, so my wife and I used the three-day window it provided to do some biking, wash our filthy travel clothes, see friends and tame the garden – the latter being her exclusive domain. Plants wither and die at the sight of me. But the real reason for my protracted silence was a trip to Vienna, ostensibly to do some research for the thesis mentioned in my first post, which is about to become all-consuming. I'm writing about the role of nature as a philosophical symbol in Mahler's music, specifically Das Lied von der Erde. The topic also takes in a huge swath of fin-de-siècle Viennese art, architecture and urban design, in an attempt to form something resembling a cohesive idea of the social construct of nature as it was posited during Mahler's lifetime, how that construct can be said to manifest in his music, and what commentary I think Mahler is making on it. (Phew!) It's a big, rambling idea that's taken me years to condense to the point where I can write an 80-page paper on it, and will require further trimming if I'm not to spend the next ten years working on it.

I'm also preparing to teach a class in the spring on Mahler's music, as seen through the lens of the art, society and philosophy of his time. The course is shamelessly modeled on a seminar I took at Stony Brook in 2000 with Joe Auner, the brilliant musicologist singlehandedly responsible for my getting into Mahler studies. After years of reading about Vienna, but never having seen it, I decided it was time to stop imagining. I admit my ego had its own part to play in the trip: I couldn't stand the thought of being caught out in one of my lectures by a student who had personal experience with the city to trump my secondhand knowledge. In any case, direct experience with a subject increases one's ability to speak about it with confidence, so I reread Carl E. Schorske's excellent
study of the period got myself off to Vienna, with my lovely wife in tow, who's a terrific travel companion, to see all the things I'd only read about.

I will say that, although I love living in Helsinki and think it a fine city, Vienna is in a league of its own. It's almost absurdly beautiful, vibrant, with a street life that must be the envy of all but a handful of other places. It has a mind-boggling selection of museums, a huge variety of architecture to explore and, contrary to my expectations, a wonderful culinary culture, if you limit yourself to local specialties or foreign cuisine. I've never had better, more authentic Vietnamese food anywhere, and the coffee would be classed as a recreational drug in most other countries. I spent the week looking at Klimt and Schiele, avoiding Kokoschka, who quite frightens me, and studying the Ringstrasse-era architecture, also taking in the magnificent, weird buildings of Hundertwasser along the way. We even went to the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, where they had a very nice, if not particularly enlightening or convincing audio exhibit on Mozart's influence on Schoenberg. I collected photos of composer memorials and heard Mozart's Requiem in Karlskirche, in the Süssmayr completion. But my real reason for going was Mahler, to see his city, and try to reconcile it with the mental image of the place I'd developed over the years.

But I couldn't find him.

My relationship with Mahler is a complicated one, dating back to my former life as a horn player. I didn't get his music when I first heard it in my late teens, and for a while I associated Mahler with a school where I hadn't especially enjoyed my studies, where I felt out of place amid a group of brass jocks who mostly wanted to play loud, and where the orchestra I couldn't get into played Mahler on a yearly basis. It took me some time to come around, and I approached it with some trepidation. But the Second Symphony eventually sucked me in, and Mahler starting exerting a heavy influence on my composing. He still does, though in a more distant way. After the confessional Romanticism of my early 20s wore off – or, more accurately, nearly killed me – I became fascinated with the way Mahler could seemingly suspend time in the midst of a shattering symphonic argument and briefly open a door into another world, with the end of
Das Lied being the prime example. The music that came floating through that door became a major source of inspiration, contrary to the cataclysmic stuff that had impressed me as a younger man. I like to think that my recent choral work Shiki inhabits the soundworld Mahler opens for us in Das Lied, but didn't live long enough to enter.

So it came as a surprise that, in a city where composer dedications are everywhere – I stumbled across Brahms and sat at his feet, quite literally nearly tripped over Gluck, and found a bust of Bruckner in a bizarre setting between two palm trees – that Mahler was almost invisible. No monuments, no visual reminders, not even a small museum. (For that, you have to go to Mahler's former summer house in Klagenfurt, clear across the country. We tried, the train fare was too expensive.) Klimt is everywhere, Otto Wagner is an architectural god, Hofmannstahl, Strauss, you name it, but Mahler, whose music
is turn-of-the-century Vienna, is virtually nowhere to be seen. To find Mahler, one has to make something of a pilgrimage.

We took the subway to Heiligenstadt, site of Beethoven's famous Testament, of which we saw a facsimile on our return journey. It's possible to take a bus from there, but the weather was so beautiful we decided to walk up into the hills, to the suspiciously pretty, upscale suburb of Grinzing which, in addition to being a tourist trap of
heurigers, has a smallish graveyard – by Viennese standards – where Mahler is buried. (Alma, and her daughter Manon, the Angel of Berg's Violin Concerto, are buried nearby as well.) After some searching, we finally came across the grave, and it proved to be an unexpectedly poignant moment.

First of all, you expect it to be HUGE, but it's quite modest, as you can see in the photo above, no taller than me. It's overgrown with trees and shrubs and the stone is worn. It seemed somehow sad to find such a titanic person buried up in a semi-forgotten place, far from the limelight occupied by other, equally great creators in Vienna. But then I looked down and saw the vases full of flowers: not bouquets, but dozens of individual flowers, most of them still fresh. And then I realized that, despite Mahler's more or less being ignored in town, many people knew about this place, and cared enough to come up here to pay their respects. I'm not really given to overt displays of emotion, other than irritation, nor am I starry-eyed about Mahler and think him a hero. He was a narcississistic cad, self-obsessed and chauvinistic, as was pretty much everyone else during that time. I actively hate some of his works, like the Eighth Symphony, which I see as a colossal sell-out. But it was almost unutterably moving to see evidence of many people going far out of their way to honor the man, connected only by a love of his music, most of which speaks of a humanity and compassion so vast as to be inexpressible in words, though Mahler somehow found them, oftentimes the simplest. I walked away from that place altered, shifted a little off-center by the experience.

I don't know why Mahler is so little in evidence in Vienna proper. It certainly can't be because he wasn't Austrian by birth, since neither were Beethoven or Brahms. I don't want to make the obvious conclusion, that he's shoved aside because he was Jewish. (An American conductor I met at the grave voiced the same suspicion.) Vienna shows some admirable signs of dealing with its past, like the two museums dedicated to the Jewish population, and the stark, troubling Holocaust memorial in the otherwise lovely square at Judenplatz in the city center. Mahler's music seems to be performed regularly in the city. But it's difficult to justify why so significant a figure, whose music speaks of what was, for better or worse, a golden era in Vienna's cultural history, shouldn't have a place beside Mozart and Beethoven.

Maybe finding Mahler should be a quest. I'm fairly sure that he would have loved the view from Grinzing, the bright sunshine and the quiet. Maybe having a statue of him on the Ringstrasse would make it too easy to access him. A conductor friend told me after I returned that there's a dedication plaque to Mahler in the Stadtsoper, which was closed for the summer when I visited, so obviously there's some level of recognition of him, at least as a conductor of opera. And if Vienna went around erecting statues to every important person who ever set foot there, you wouldn't be able to move for monuments. Still, given Vienna's preoccupation with its musical history, Mahler seems to invite special consideration, as do several other neglected figures, like Schreker. With the centenary of Mahler's death approaching in 2011, it would seem like the ideal time for Vienna to make a move to more fully honor him.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip, and I'm still processing the huge amount of information from it. Many things about my thesis were clarified for me, and many more questions were brought up. And on my last day in town, I came across this:

So things are looking up.