I Am Sitting In A Room

Commentary and thoughts on (mostly) classical music.

Monday, January 31, 2005

From the Blogosphere

Marcus posts about Houston Symphony's newly announced 2005-06 season. I'm right with him in looking forward to the several highlights of next season - it is such a pleasure to live in a city with a full-time orchestra (esp. after spending most of my life in the backwater of Florida). I'm going to complain that they are bringing Leila Josefovicz to town in back-to-back seasons and neither time is she playing the Adams Violin Concerto. Dammit! Also - I love Chopin but could do without the Concerti, do I really need to hear both of them in one season?

Kyle Gann's PostClassical Radio is currently loaded with piano music (playlist), including an hour's worth of La Monte Young's Well-Tuned Piano. This is one of the few works where I've had a truly vertiginous listening experience that involved a recording rather than live performance. When I started it up this afternoon, the first things I heard were a piece from Terry Riley's The Harp of New Albion and one of Elodie Lauten's Variations on the Orange Cycle. Lovely Music, indeed.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


ArtsJournal posts a link to this Village Voice article about rejected visas for Cuban musicians. This saddens me. I had been hoping that the success of Buena Vista Social Club and subsequent U.S.-Cuban musical collaborations might signal the beginning of a real attempt to erode the U.S. embargo.

I have long been in favor lifting the embargo, believing that the best thing that could happen to Cuba is an influx of tourists, visiting exiles and information. A flood of information will do more to undermine the Castro regime than the corresponding income of U.S. dollars would prop it up.

Unfortunately, the will of the Cuban Exile community has gained serious political leverage during my lifetime and they’re not about to let anything like that happen. They are now a solid cadre in America’s reigning neo-con dynasty. Not only will the Bush family accede to their proposals re: U.S.-Cuban relations, but the Bushes are better served by keeping Fidel in power and the exiles rabid and focused north of the Florida Straits.

(On the Castro front: In 2001, his doctors said he could live to be 140, despite the wishful-thinking roster of diseases he has been given over the years - heart disease, gout, and various cancers, especially prostate - and assassination attempts.)

Posted by Hello
Speaking of Buena Vista, on its heels Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba put together Calle 54 – a tribute to Latin jazz (as opposed to the older Cuban song styles of BVSC). Calle 54 is more about the Latin diaspora than the pickled nostalgia Ry Cooder discovered in late 90s Cuba. Trueba pointedly films musicians during winter in frigid and desolate locations (Stockholm, upstate NY, the barrios) that contrast sharply with the tropical heat of the music.

The brief musician profiles are program notes, infusions of context for the filmed performances that are the meat of the movie. The performances take place in vividly lit studios, with multiple camera angles, well-engineered sound, and a kick-ass roster that includes Chucho Valdés, Paquito d’Rivera, Tito Puente (one of his last appearances), and Cachao. There are no cuts, voiceovers, or other interference with the musical numbers, which was one of my biggest complaints with BVSC. Trueba is so in love with this music that he wants you to enjoy it unadulterated. His presentation is almost fetishist in its clean lines and close-ups; the way the camera lingers on attractive Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias is obvious enough, but Trueba is just as intent on focusing on Tito Puente's toungue and the yellow-toothed glee of Michel Camilo. His joy is infectious and the film is great.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Fun with Lists

In an as-yet (perhaps to remain) unpublished blog item, I’ve been facing my biggest dilemmas. One of them has always been the sheer quantity of stuff – music, books, films, ideas – that vies for my limited time on this plane. I’m not the most disciplined of people (another dilemma), but I have found that if I have a list to follow point by point, I can at least reduce my scope a little and get some things accomplished.

Recently, I’ve been exploring new(er) music from the 20th/21st century. Culling textbooks to establish some direction is tedious – and, unless you randomize the list, gets you into historicist thinking that isn’t part of my project. Instead, I have taken guidance from some lists compiled by others:

The Century List & Another Century List by Frank Oteri (editor of NewMusicBox)
– The first is subtitled “100 Reasons to Play This Century’s [sic] Music.” An interesting, wide-ranging list of works that could be radio-friendly if classical radio would loosen up some (or quite a bit in several cases).

Music Since 1960 by Tim Rutherford-Johnson (The Rambler)
– Each installment has come with a beautifully and effectively written appreciation. Read the recent post on Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel for a prime example. The Rothko Chapel is a meditative sanctuary of austere grace located here in Houston.

101 Essential Pieces of 20th Century Concert Music by Steve Hicken (listen.)
– The list, in a block paragraph at the foot of every page on the blog, has undergone recent revision. Also, Steve Hicken has recently added me to his blogroll. Many thanks!

The Postclassical Piano Repertiore List by Kyle Gann (Postclassic)
– As a (non-practicing) pianist, I love finding out about new piano works – especially from a corner of the rep. that doesn’t get much mainstream exposure. Scroll up to the previous post for some updates.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Jan Lenica - Tannhäuser (1974)

Posted by Hello

The newest addition to our home is this vintage poster for a Polish production of Tannhäuser. The artist is Jan Lenica (len-EE-tsa), poster designer and animator, who we found out about quite by accident while looking at opera posters that might adorn our bare walls. I was getting tired of the standard fare and started exploring until we found Lenica. My girlfriend forgot about posters for a couple months until I presented her with this for Xmas. She was delightfully surprised. (Actually, she gaped in shock - I got tons of "good boyfriend" points.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Review Notes: Michael Mizrahi, Fnd. for Modern Music

On Marcus Maroney’s recommendation, I caught the beginning of a solo piano recital by Michael Mizrahi on Sunday. I only managed to catch the first work, Bach’s Partita No. 6 in E minor. Mizrahi has a sure hand, decent range of color and good presence at the keyboard. I was bothered by some bass lines that started in relief but became swallowed before they had run their course, and I would have liked to hear the music dance a little more. Otherwise, it was quite good (the Allemande especially) and I’d like to hear him in more recent repertoire.

I left to see the Fndation for Modern Music’s concert downtown. I really wanted this concert to be successful, not only because it was my first live experience of Ancient Voices of Children, but because FMM does a decent job of presenting new music in a comfortable atmosphere. Artistic Director Rudolfo Morales teaches at the High School for Visual and Performing Arts, so there’s always a following of students at their concerts. The board members are warm, inviting, and generally a nice group of people.

Unfortunately, the concert just didn’t come together. Here’s a rundown:

Silvestre Rivueltas – Five Children’s Songs: Well sung by Tracy Rhodus, but slight pieces mostly in a Mexican folk/popular style.

Manuel Enríquez – Maxienia: Piano solo played by Max Lifchitz. This was the strongest performance of the concert. Maxienia is improvisatory, gestural, and post-tonally chromatic, with enough narrative/dramatic backbone to keep the music moving forward. Lifchitz had good dynamic nuance and let the space between gestures breathe. He was helped out by the resonance of Zilkha Hall, which is a really nice space for the Steinway that was used.

Mary Jeanne van Appledorn - A Liszt Fantasie: Take several Liszt snippets (my scorecard noted A Faust Symphony, the Sonata, and several bits from Années de Pèlerinage), some Lisztian cadenzas and passagework, stir, notate, and serve. Another minute or two longer and I would’ve called this execrable.

Max Lifchitz – Yellow Ribbon No. 38 (world premiere): It felt like Lifchitz didn’t really know what to do with his ensemble of oboe, harp, two guitars, three percussionists, and piano. The material wasn’t particularly interesting and some of the ideas were half-baked. There was no convincing reason why a movement called “Solitude” should have duet for oboe and percussion. The “Peace” movement consisted of interminable repetitions of music from the earlier movements. Each instrument was assigned its own motive and juxtaposed with the others without development resulting in a vision of peaceful coexistence in which nothing interacts.

Crumb – Ancient Voices: Like the performance of Lifchitz’s piece, this didn’t amount to anything. The musical ideas didn’t flow, and there was little palpable ancientness, ritual, or exoticism. Some nice moments were lost in general muddle of the performance.

If I had been reviewing this for a publication, I would be having a really hard time right now. What do you do when you admire a group’s mission and their dedication to it, but their concert doesn’t cut it?

Monday, January 17, 2005

Review: Blood and Sinew

Houston Symphony, Sat. 1/15/05
Brahms - Symphony #3, Bartók - Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

It began and ended in darkness, with low strings intoning the long notes that frame Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The drama of Béla Bartók’s lone opera involves light that has limited and temporary power to illuminate Bluebeard’s world. Hans Graf conducted the Houston Symphony in a concert performance lit by local duo the Art Guys, who confined the light in Jones Hall to the space under the musicians’ chairs, music stand lights, and two lanterns carried by François LeRoux and Sally Burgess in the roles of Bluebeard and his young bride Judith. The rest was darkness.

The libretto by Béla Balázs calls for colored lights to accompany the opening of each of the seven locked doors that Judith confronts in the main chamber of the castle. The Art Guys' effective lighting scheme installed LED lights under the chairs in the orchestra, controlling the varied shades and intensity of color through computerized algorithms that affected each light individually. Without obvious patterns, the light was able to undulate in waves, sparkle with the glint of treasure, and become tainted with the red of blood.

The performance was excellent. Hans Graf can be too restrained and a little stuffy sometimes, but his pacing and balance were right on here. Burgess and LeRoux were in good voice and nicely characterized their roles. My only complaints have to do with two interpretational choices: 1) the Prologue was skipped; and 2) Judith’s emotional range was too broad (a compliment to the execution, but not the conception).

The spoken prologue is a kind of Brechtian framing device, transitioning the audience from their preoccupations and into the realm of Bluebeard’s Castle . The last verse reads:

"Enter. Start the music. Raise the curtain.
Put away your lives that may find them. Lo!
Bluebeard’s castle! Soon you’ll see…but you know
The story, know the moral. Are you certain,
Ladies and gentlemen?"
This address to the audience is a challenge directly from Balázs and Bartók to delve into the opera’s symbolism rather than passively watch events unfold. This is no fairy tale, they say.

Fleshing out Judith’s personality brings more realism to the role than I think there should be. Beyond a few early references that establish her as external to the castle, Judith is not really a person, but Love as a force working on the dark corners of Bluebeard’s psyche. Bring too many shades in – Burgess tinged the role with youthful fear, impertinence and imperiousness (Judith is a newly minted duchess, after all) – and Judith becomes more clearly situated as a victim.

This overshadows Bluebeard’s tragedy. In an inversion of the classic Wagnerian formula, he cannot be redeemed by Love. Unlike Tristan, he is bound to blood and sinew, despite repeated attempts at salvation. The wives living in the seventh chamber have each failed to heal the psychic wounds of Bluebeard. Judith’s love is part of a cycle likely to repeat as long as Bluebeard lives. (Granting Judith the crown of night implies Bluebeard is at the end of his life, but the final passage leaves the dominant unresolved and open-ended.)

The concert opened with Brahms’s Symphony No. 3. It wasn’t the smoothest rendering, but the taut and sinewy first movement sounded well. The Allegretto third movement was the highlight, with beautifully shaped long paragraphs played with just a touch of delicacy by the Symphony’s strings. The second and fourth movements rambled some, and I'm not sure how to distribute the blame between Brahms and Graf. Since my natural tendency is to abuse Brahms, I will refrain from trying.

So, then. A practice review, under 600 words. Feels a little stiff, but I'm still getting my legs. And I keep having to hold back from typing "But I may be full of sh*t" after every other opinion.

Left this out. It seemed a little much and I was self-imposing a word count. It is reasonbly well thought out, though:

Bluebeard knows the tragedy is his. He is powerless to stop the doors opening, but keeps trying to raise his defenses. With the fifth door he presents his magnificent wide-reaching lands. The light and music are both dazzling in their brightness, and Bluebeard does virtually all the singing, not because he is proudest of his kingdom, but because this is his last chance to halt the revelations. He is begging Judith to become lost in their splendor. This is the point where the lighting failed by being so contained in the space under the musicians. I was hoping to have to shield my eyes from blinding whiteness. (By this point in the performance, Judith was already gazing vacantly, with an inkling of what the last chamber held.)

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Would you like some (French) toast?

A.C. Douglas' winter ritual of challah bread French toast sounds great - except for the winter part.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Argh! Foiled!

In lieu of blogging this week I've been doing some advance work ahead of this weekend's concert slate. I was looking forward to attending the Musiqa/Chiara Quartet performance tonight and writing about it upon my return, finally getting some content on this blog.

Unfortunately my car had other ideas. She had just enough juice to get a mile away and back home as quick as I could make it...actually I had to walk the last half block after the battery gave up the ghost. Alternator, battery, or electrical system - it's still a pain in the ass.

My main consolation is that at least I'll probably get more chances to hear Tony Brandt's The Dragon and the Undying and Shih-Hui Chen's Quartet #4, which was to premiere tonight, in performances at Rice. (By the way, I found the score for Brandt's Dragon here.)

Tomorrow I'll say a few things about Bluebeard's Castle in anticipation of the Houston Symphony's concert - I have a driver for that one.


Robert Gable of aworks :: "new" american classical music and Marcus Maroney of Sounds Like New have posted links to the blog (Marcus has honored me with a spot on his blogroll). Many thanks to both, whose blogs I read and enjoy regularly. Stay tuned while I try to meet the challenge of being included among the admirable writers of the blogosphere.

Later that same evening: Alex Ross links to the Room (a nickname I'm trying out - better than IASIAR, but may unfairly steal from TSR). There is something surreal about sitting down to scan the 'sphere only to keep running into references to your own fledgling blog.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Houston Concert Life: 1/14 - 1/18

Coming up this weekend:

1/14 - Musiqa's second concert, with the Chiara String Quartet. Musiqa is composer-run series dedicated to new music. They're performing works by Rice faculty members Tony Brandt & Shih-Hui Chen, along with Dutilleux's* ...ainsi la nuit... and possibly more. Each Musiqa concert also features a new work from another discipline. This time it's a one-act play by Douglas Mitchell.

1/15, 16, 17 - Houston Symphony has Brahms 3 and Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. Bluebeard won't be staged, but it will be lighted (no, not lit). The Art Guys, a pair of screwball performance artists, are providing dramatic lighting via LED lights that will be under the musicians' chairs. As near as I can tell, the color and intensity of the lights will be controlled by computer-inputted algorithms with minimal cueing (i.e., when Judith opens each of Bluebeard's seven doors). The lighting idea is a good way to tackle Bluebeard, which would seem like an ideal opera to do in a concert version since it isn't very long and has only two singers. But the action of opening the doors is central to the drama and ought to be represented somehow.
     It's a good project for the Houston Symphony, too. The creative collaboration and new and unusual use of technology on stage makes this feel like an event. Hopefully that will attract enough of an audience to meet or exceed their expectations so they won't shy away from "the new" in the future. It's the only way to survive. I think orchestras have been missing out by not creating and harnassing the frisson of anticipation that comes from a new experience (and doesn't come from the umpteenth performance of a Brahms Symphony). It's also good that this is an interdisciplinary collaboration, and one that reaches out into the community - the Art Guys are a beloved local institution, like Art Cars (direct to pictures). Not to mention that it has been a fairly inexpensive commission - about $50,000, which is probably recouped in intangible publicity.
     Anyway, I'm excited...and also amused at the thought of a Brahms Symphony as a "lighter" work to fill out the program. I'll be there Saturday and might catch the Monday repeat, too.

1/16 - The Foundation for Modern Music has "A Musical Evening with the Poetry of Garcia Lorca." Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children is the centerpiece, complemented by settings of children's songs by Silvestre Rivueltas and a premiere by Mexican composer Max Lifchitz. I'll be getting prepared with my LP of Ancient Voices that I got Crumb to sign in November. :)

1/18 - The more mainstream oriented Houston Friends of Music brings in the Daedalus Quartet. They're playing Schubert's Quartettsatz and the Ravel Quartet, so me and the girlfriend each have something in it we're fond of. After intermission is the second Brahms String Quintet.

This'll keep me busy well into next week. I'll let you know how it all turns out.

* Ha! Spelled it right on the first try! ...screwed up ainsi, though.


After much fun with XHTML (I'm a muddler, not an expert), I've tweaked the look of the blog and added some links to the sidebar. There's more to do, including getting a real profile up

My blogroll is far from exhaustive, but just listing the blogs I read fairly regularly took quite a bit of space. What's scary is to think of that in terms of time spent keeping up to date with reading. I usually use Alex Ross's blogroll to launch from, so if you want more sites go there. Here's his list of Music Blogs.

Later that same day: Joined up at H-Town Blogs, so Houston's represented among the Links now. I guess this means I'm officially open for business.

Monday, January 03, 2005

By way of Introduction...

If 'blog' was the watchword for 2004, it is more than likely that '05 will be "The Year of the Blog."* January seems like the perfect time to jump on the bandwagon – especially since I procrastinated through the “just before it hits big” stage of the blog-writing trend.

I'd been considering starting a weblog for a few months now to support a burgeoning music criticism preoccupation. The choice to borrow the title of Alvin Lucier's composition "I am sitting in a room" was a flash of inspiration when Blogger prompted me to name the blog. The piece consists of a spoken expository text ("I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now...") recorded, played back in a room and re-recorded in that space over and over through many successive generations. In Lucier's words, "what you will hear then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech."

Something similar has been going on in my mind. Processes of reading, thinking, listening, and filtering have been working (I hope) to reinforce the resonant frequencies of my aesthetic, which I will be trying to articulate in writing.

Most posts will be about classical music, with commentary on conventional wisdom, posts on music I’m examining, and reviews from the Houston concert scene. I'm also trying to learn how to write well and vividly about music, and the blog will act as a portfolio for those efforts. I want to develop into an intelligent critic, which I believe involves: 1) being able to access my honest emotional reactions to music (art, film, literature, etc.); 2) becoming a stylish analyst and wielder of metaphors; 3) investing commentary with a broad cultural scope; 4) having the ability to formulate, defend, and argue aesthetic positions.

You are invited to follow my progress, say hi, make comments, and throw rotten fruit as appropriate. Welcome.

* [Remember when '03 was "Year of the Blues?" It was a nice try, but I don't see the blues with any higher profile after the fact. Which is a shame, but it goes to show that invented media hype does not always pan out - which may be something of a blessing.]