I Am Sitting In A Room

Commentary and thoughts on (mostly) classical music.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


I've been writing a letter to my local classical music station. It's gone through several drafts, but the basic sentiment is in a sentence I haven't decided whether or not to use:

"The classical music world is not as wretchedly moribund as a week’s worth of KUHF playlists would suggest."

If you're dissatisfied with the state of classical radio in your neck of the woods, let 'em know.

Update: I decided to use that line in my letter, which has now been sent. Another sample:

"Let’s face it; nobody falls in love with classical music on a steady diet of Telemann, Bax, and Galuppi."

Monday, February 21, 2005

Informal Review: EAR Unit

Last Thursday the California EAR Unit played at Rice. At the end of the evening I felt like I'd heard an earful (bad pun stolen from fellow audience member) but that there was another dimension to the experience that I couldn't express consciously. Because I was reviewing the concert I spent the next morning thinking about this and compiling my mental notes. While in the shower I started to piece it together.

The EAR Unit ended with Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together, a piece I know well and the only one on the program I knew going in. The instrumental component of the Rzewski was fine, but the delivery of the text by the EAR Unit's clarinetist was disappointing. First of all, he was a vocal dead ringer for Michael Moore. This would have been distracting enough, but his delivery was dry, words were swallowed, and what dramatic shading there was was sporadic.

Despite all that, I found the performance really powerful. At first I figured my familiarity with the piece was compensating for the poor reading. Then I started to see threads in the overall design of the program that built up to Coming Together, making it the summation of the evening.

The pieces on the first half of the program were concerned with processing external stimuli. Amy Knoles' Squint was described in the program note as an aural complement of squinting one's eyes. The accompanying video extended the idea with night shots of road traffic and lighted directional arrow that gradually morphed from positive to negative images (or shots on damaged celluloid as in Decasia). Eric Chasalow's Suspicious Motives used real-time electronic processing to expand the sonorities of the live instruments, creating occasional disjunctions between the visual performance and the sounds produced. James Sellars' Go reveled in the rush of momentum that comes with high-speed freeway driving (something we don't experience much here in H-town).

The second half of the program turned inwards. Eve Beglarian's Cave sets part of an Eileen Myles poem that ends "a cave inside your soul may be the only place to go." The dynamic was quiet throughout, with sustained long tones supporting a repeated pop-based piano riff and Vicki Ray's whispered delivery of the poem a word or two at a time. This was followed by Kaija Saariaho's Cendres (Cinders), the strongest of the pieces that were unfamiliar to me. To borrow Aaron Einbond's description in San Francisco Classical Voice:
Rather than pursuing traditional thematic development, the distinguished Finnish-French composer draws the listener's attention to the beautifully-crafted, evolving tone-colors of the three instruments as they play with a range of standard and extended techniques. From the opening gesture, in which soft pizzicato morphs into a cello harmonic trill molto sul ponticello and back to a soft tremolo, the ensemble sculpted composite timbres with great care.

All of this set up Rzewski's Coming Together. From 1972, this probably counts as one of the earliest examples of post-minimalism, using minimalist processes towards extramusical ends to add layers of subtext to the words of Sam Melville. Melville was a left-wing activist jailed at Attica and killed during the prisoner riots - or, as some conspiracy theories have it, picked off by a sniper after the uprising (which he likely had a part in organizing) was quashed and control regained by the State. In a letter to his brother Melville wrote:

I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. It's six months now and I can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but I feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am I dealing with my environment. In the indifferent brutality, the incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men I can act with clarity and meaning. I am deliberate- sometimes calculating- seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

Rzewski divided this text into its eight sentences and employed a variation of minimalist additive technique in its deployment. He called the process "squaring," in which "a melodic sequence is gradually built up by adding a note at a time, and then washed away by subtracting notes from the pattern once completed, in a slow, giant wave." As in the sequence: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3 ... 6-7-8, 7-8, 8.

The musical material also employs this squaring process on the thematic and structural levels. More than one commentator has noted that the steady stream of sixteenth notes playing only a pentatonic scale that is constantly unfolded and washed away is a likely metaphor for the confined cycles of prison life. The spoken text, unfolding in the same manner but on a slower temporal scale (each sentence is divided into units that are spoken one to a 4/4 measure), has a different effect. The listener, sensing the repetitions, spends the first half of the piece keying in on the phrase "I think," which recurs at greater distances of time as more of Melville's words are revealed. Once the first sentence is erased, the touchstone phrase becomes "the inevitable direction of my life," which begins to come more frequently as the squaring wave washes away.

As if to complement Rzewski's design, the first half of the EAR Unit's program was concerned with external input, corresponding to the metaphorical cycles of prison life in the (constantly active) instrumental component of Coming Together. Melville's words clearly come from the internal cave suggested by Eileen Myles and Eve Beglarian, from which Melville clinically observes the world of jailed and jailer.

Again, it's as though everything else played over the course of the evening contributed to amplifying the concepts of external and internal life which coexist in Coming Together. This enhanced the darkly ironic ending of Rzewski's piece, in which the driving piano part approaches the end of its last wave, converging on the G root of a minor pentatonic scale and sweeping the other instruments along in its wake as the final climax builds. As the voice of Melville is "feeling for the inevitable direction of my life" for the last time, the external forces finish their process and come to a sudden halt. In the loud reverberations that drop quickly to silence (thank you, Duncan Hall), that inevitable direction has been decided as Melville's life is abruptly cut off.

I'm not sure how likely it is that this design was intentionally built into the EAR Unit's programming, or if that's even a relevant issue. I also don't know how much of this I projected backward in time onto the concert experience as I was trying to account for the dimension I felt was missing in my understanding of it. But I will say that it made the evening come together (ack - another bad pun) for me in a pretty powerful way.

Any comments, thoughts, or tales of similar experience are welcome.

Updated for clarity and to add links.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Crane/La Grue

Pierre Boulez's Favorite Movie

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

...the week that's to come.

Tonight 2/15: Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble - Mendelssohn Octet, Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht (HouFriends of Music); FLUX Quartet - Nancarrow 3rd, Scelsi 4th, Zorn Cat o'Nine Tails (Da Camera); Wednesday 2/16: First in a three-concert survey of Beethoven's Violin Sonatas with Kathleen Winkler and Jon Kimura Parker (Rice); Thursday 2/17: California EAR Unit - Rzewski "Coming Together" & more (SZYZYGY: New Music at Rice)

I'm reviewing the FLUX & EAR Unit concerts for hopeful publication and then collapsing for the weekend. All of this activity will be coinciding with new employment (either the good arts admin. job I'm waiting to hear back on or something with less appeal - one way or another I need to work).

The week that was...

Saw many concerts this past weekend that I neglected to blog about, partly because I got to do a little music journalism and I was being painstaking about it. I wrote a small article for local ArtsHouston magazine for which I interviewed Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. This was my first composer interview and I could not have had a more gracious subject.

Rice U's Shepherd School of Music had several concerts over the weekend, including their Symphony and Chamber Orchestras. I caught enjoyable performances of Dvořák's 7th and Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin (though I missed hearing the Toccata from the original version for piano). Young 'cellist Yeon-Sun Joo tore into the Schumann Cello Concerto. While she skipped out on subtleties her tone was surprisingly huge and rich. Thursday, the faculty played chamber works of Sam Jones, former department head and current Seattle Symphony resident composer. Jones is a solidly neo-romantic composer fond of bitonality and film-music style picturesque music. His Piano Sonata and Cello Sonata were effective.

Houston Symphony welcomed pianist Steven Hough, who played an elegant and dashing Saint-Saëns Egyptian Concerto. Hough has a very smooth, effortless technique and looked unruffled even during the bravura finale that brought the audience out of their seats. Franck's D minor Symphony closed the program, and though I know the tunes, the workings of the piece are less familiar. The structural incoherencies may have been Franck's failing or guest composer Louis Langrée's. But still, it is beautiful music and was well played.

Sunday caught the final performance of Houston Grand Opera's Idomeneo. Very crisp all around. Richard Croft in the title role was the standout among the cast. Lingering thoughts: amusement that in Greece they call the gods by their Roman names - how prescient! Poor Elettra, she's basically a walk on in the drama, there to be abused by fate - though she does get the most pyrotechnic aria before leaving the stage to commit hari-kari.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

A Little Midnight Music

A search for the score to George Crumb's Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik led me to an entry in WNYC's New Sounds series featuring an in-studio performance by Simone Dinnerstein. Stream and enjoy.

In October, Crumb visited Houston during his 70th birthday tour and gave a concert. Bob Shannon played EKM, which is subtitled Ruminations on "'Round Midnight" by Thelonius Monk. Monk and Crumb - what an inspired mix of two guys that developed strongly individual, mysterious piano sounds. The silences that are so much a part of Monk's tune lend themselves perfectly to Crumb's penchant for dropping out all activity to let the unearthly shimmer of excited piano strings fade into the foreground.

Italian pianist Emanaule Arciuli was involved in the commission that produced Mitternachtmusik. In addition to Crumb, a host of other composers wrote variations on Monk's tune. I haven't heard any of these, though I'm hoping that the 'Round Midnight Project will lead to an eventual recording. (Crumb told me in October that a recording of EKM was in the can awaiting release.)

Crumb's contribution stands on its own at 15 minutes, and I think it'll become an important contribution to the piano repertoire. When we first heard it, both my girlfriend and I were captivated. Now that Peters has the score out* she can put it on her "to do" list and I can start retraining my fingers to move.

Links: Robert Gable's aworks has an entry on the piece. Lawrence Budmen reviews Arciuli's performance of the 'Round Midnight Varations at last year's Festival Miami (yay for the hometown!).

* It's not listed on their website, but Sheet Music Plus shows it available.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Job Opening: Houston Grand Opera Director

The official announcements have come overnight: David Gockley is leaving Houston Grand Opera to become General Director of San Francisco Opera.

There are many aspects of this move which make me uncertain. First, I'm disappointed in the dissing of Pamela Rosenberg, who seems to have done some really cool programming in SF. Second, I'm dubious about Gockley's "new music" credentials. I am admittedly a bit of a snob on this point and haven't heard most of the 33 new works staged during his tenure, but Gockley does seem more focused on the tamer side of Americana in his commissions. (I could probably be swayed from this viewpoint by some persuasive argument and better grasp of HGO's history than I have.)

Thirdly, the hole here at Houston Grand Opera needs to be filled. Despite my reservations about his programming, Gockley has done an admirable job staying in the black (or at break-even) while insisting that HGO produce new opera. According to the local paper, HGO just set a number of long-range goals which likely contain Gockley's fingerprint. But beyond that, will the leadership fight to keep that spirit alive or retrench if they run into fiscal trouble?

It should be noted that my definition of "cool programming" is highly personal, and has little to do with the production or vocal talent involved. When I look at a season schedule, I like to see a well-blended mix of new opera (preferably seminal modern works or composers I dig), operas in Czech, Russian, or English, a little bit of Wagner, and a smaller than average complement of the rest of the core repertoire. Compare SFO's current season with next season. 05/06 - with the major exception of John Adams' Doctor Atomic - strikes me as less interesting from a programming standpoint.

Update: San Francisco's Classical Voice has articles about the transition on its front page and, in greater depth, here. They don't seem sorry to see Ms. Rosenberg go, despite the recent announcement that SFO was in the black last fiscal year after major deficits the preceding years.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Juicy Panic/Philistines

Juicy Panic
Found this whilst reading Running the Voodoo Down.
Sometimes you randomly encounter something that reminds you that people you've never met have a totally different conception of what constitutes "music" than you.
Listen/watch the linked tune. These are some people who seem incredibly happy to be who they are and create what they have. My knowledge of electronica and Asian-precious cuteness* is strictly on the casual level, but darned if I didn’t fall in love with this – especially the slightly maniacal dancing/spinning cat. (Kinda makes you want to look if you haven’t followed the link yet, huh?)

Showing this to my significant other then resulted in my introduction to Cibo Matto and a trip to the record [sic] store.

* Not meant as a slur of any kind. There is something cute-quirky about Asian pop culture that lends itself to commodification (i.e., Hello Kitty) and becomes one of the primary elements in Asian fetishes.

[unfinished, coming soon]

Thursday, February 03, 2005

One-Month Anniversary

Yippee! This blog is one month old today. Many thanks to all of the people that have read the blog and/or linked here.

The classical* music blogosphere was hungry enough to find me before I had even planned to go public. I take that as an encouraging sign that there are a great many people invested in the music, despite the current cycle of doom-saying. Keep up the good work all!

*insert your favorite label for the music here