Classical Musicians Are Boring

Classical music, as we all know, is boring. Really fucking boring.

It is distinguished from all of the other lively (or “fine”) arts; poets, painters, and even sculptors are generally animated folk who enjoy emotions, colors, and being alive. Musicians—classical musicians, that is—are, on the other hand, tepid and stiff, and would just as soon count beans or sit still as eat, drink or enjoy any sort of pleasure.

The general malaise of scholarship and intellectualism has infested this arm of the arts. Those suited to musical study are cheerlessly devoted to it; the joy of sounds and the interplay thereof give them no delight. It is, rather, a matter of pressing buttons or touching strings in the proper sequence without smiling.

The classical music world, then, is full of grey, dull sorts who’d raher do long division than hum a tune, and find laughter a useless diversion that only serves to steal precious time from their busy schedule of not caring what you think.

What a delight, a surprise, an anomaly, when we find that most exotic of birds: a joyous musician!

Pianist with global reach comes home for good cause

Tom Murray, Edmonton Journal, 6/17/2010

For Maria Thompson Corley, music is more than just an intellectual exercise.

For the vast majority of people who have given up the pursuit of other careers, paths in life which at some point have a beggar’s chance of providing a decent living, so that they may instead pursue their passion for classical music, music is just an intellectual exercise.

Figure 1: George Gershwin, unsmiling and not smoking a pipe, engages in an intellectual exercise (ca 1936)

The Juilliard-trained pianist, who studied under the legendary Gyorgy Sandor, has been immersed in classical music since she was a young girl, but she doesn't look to it as the only soundtrack for her life.

Again, this is implicitly contrasted to most classically-trained musicians, who have no idea about this "Elvis" person they keep hearing so much about.

Figure 2: The soundtrack to unsmiling Charles Ives's life was nothing but stodgy old classical music.

"Oh, no," she says over the phone from her mother's home in Leduc. "It's all about what you feel like at the moment.

Oh, no! No no no! Music is an accoutrement. Like earrings, or underwear. To help you express your mood, absent the proper function of facial muscles.

Figure 3: Young composers Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky only ever had one feeling at any given moment, which is why they composed classical music.

"Sometimes you want to dance," she laughs.

Never, ever in the history of Western culture has anyone actually danced to classical music. Ever.

Figure 4: George Balanchine loved classical music, so he never felt like dancing.

"A while back I wrote an article about Michael Jackson and the editor asked why I would want to do this. Michael Jackson was a big deal to me and my friends growing up. We would try and learn the dance moves to his songs.

Who ever heard of a classical musician that likes pop music? Outrageous!

Figure 5: Erik Satie never smiled, nor did he have any truck with popular music; he certainly didn't earn his living playing cabaret songs in a seedy bar.

"I once spoke with urban kids about classical music, and since there was no piano I just talked about how different kinds of music moved me. The kids would come up and ask me if I knew about Fur Elise or Moonlight Sonata.

I don’t understand this anecdote. Michael Jackson…urban kids…no piano…Moonlight Sonata.

"People do have open minds about these things."

I read this as having a British-style emphatic do.

You could certainly say the same of Corley, who met the exacting standards of Sandor while still maintaining a sense of fun often absent in the rigid world of classical music.

My goodness, that awful, rigid world of classical music devoid of fun.

Figure 6: Known far and wide as a joyless soul, John Cage certainly typifies the lack of fun in the classical music world.

It is of course generally understood that music students, when not practicing or learning the dull, stifling art of music and its history, are forced to sit, chained to a dank grey wall in a dungeon and read Spinoza aloud to one another ad nauseum.

I mean: let’s be honest here. Do you think music schools, especailly Very Serious ones (like Julliard), are full of young, artistically-minded, creative, intellectually curious types who spend their spare time going to lots of concerts with their friends, drinking, and fucking?

Don’t be silly.

Figure 7: Unlike most college students, 18-21 year old conservatory academics and musicians are interested in neither sex, nor drugs, nor rock 'n' roll.


Extreme Merdle and Haggard

Merdle: You know, it’s been a long time since we’ve been to a new music concert. I’m feeling a little guilty for not supporting the arts. Plus, I have a hankering for something not associated with Toy Story 3.

Haggard: Me too. I could go for something that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator.

Want some coffee?

M: Sure. Thanks.

H: [pours coffee] We should check the listings—see if we can find something worthwhile.

M: Mmm. Did you grab the paper?

H: Yeah. It’s on the counter, behind you.

M: Oh. I didn't see it there. It’s early--not quite awake yet.

H: That’s what coffee is for.

M: You said it. [sips] Hmm. [fumbles through paper] Arts section...NY/ Region…Ah! Here’s something. Ooh! It’s about the Caramoor Music Festival.

H: We haven’t been to Caramoor in years. What are they up to?

M: Well… “CHAMBER music has been a key part of the Caramoor International Music Festival in Katonah for most of its 64 years. But rarely has the festival presented as wide a spectrum of chamber offerings as it will in its 65th season, which opens this month.”

H: I didn’t know they’ve been around that long! Good for them.

Would you like your eggs scrambled or sunny-side up?

M: Sunny-side up, please.

H: So, a rare, wide spectrum of chamber music? [goes to refrigerator, grabs butter, eggs, bacon, and jelly] Sounds good. What else does it say?

M: “Along with established and emerging artists serving up standard chamber fare, an audacious group of new-music exponents will be on hand — bending the chamber format and…”

H: How does one bend the chamber format?

M: Maybe it’ll be played in a large arena.

H: Or maybe there’ll be just enough players so that you can’t quite call it chamber, but few enough that you can’t quite call it an orchestra.

M: Meh. “’We’re still pushing the envelope, for Caramoor, and trying to reach a broader part of the community,’ said Michael Barrett, the chief executive and general director of the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts.”

H: The qualification of “pushing the envelope” doesn’t instill much chamber-format-bending confidence.

M: That and "trying to reach a broader community" kinda smells funny, don't you think? I mean, it sounds like a good thing, but for whom?

H: Not gonna tell you. It's just so good.

M: Mmm-hmm. “The new-music aesthetic being presented this year departs somewhat from that of academically oriented composers like Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter.”

H: Again with the qualifiers! I’m not sure what to make of these messages: first there was "wide spectrum"; then "format bending"; followed by pushing the envelope “for Caramoor”…

M: Don't forget departing “somewhat.” Yeah. They’re toeing a line, for sure. But the bigger issue is the seeming way almost all new music is being marketed.

H: Do you mean how they want to distance themselves from thinking and academia?

M: Totally. What’s wrong with thinking?

H: You got me. Not for nothing, I seem to think we've been through this whole "we want an art that appeals more to the senses than to reason" thing before.

Anyway, want to think about how you want your bacon to appeal to you?

M: Charred, baby.

H: That’s why I love you.

M: “While Caramoor’s performers maintain a uniformly high level of musicianship, they embrace elements of popular culture…”

H: Doesn't "while," as a conjunction here, connote a contrast? What's that supposed to mean?!

M: Hold on. “…producing what the festival’s marketers call extreme chamber music.”

I guess it means that nobody knows how to market that which is unmarketable.

H: But they know how to market popular culture! It’s like calling a sports drink extreme, because it actually contains water, instead of processed, liquid-like crap.

M: Do you ever get the feeling that arts advertising is, like, ten years behind current doublespeak practice?

H: Ha! You said sunny-side up, right?

M: Yep. “Reflecting their training at Oberlin and Juilliard, the members of 2 Foot Yard, a violin-cello-guitar trio that will appear on July 2, bring a certain phrasing and detail of tone to their interpretations, said Carla Kihlstedt, the group’s violinist.”

H: [cracks an egg]

M: “Yet, she said, the group works in forms that have more in common with folk or pop music than with traditional classical composition.”

H: …Because phrasing and details can't exist in folk and pop forms, don't you know? What?!

M: Maybe there’s something to this whole anti-academic distancing. Schools are obviously not doing their jobs well.

H: You’re just saying that to get under my skin, aren’t you? Besides, you mean conservatories; they're hardly schools.

M: But you’re cute, when you’re mad. [sips coffee]

H: Seriously, just read. Meanwhile I’ll cook your breakfast, without help…all by myself.

M: “None of its tunes run more than six minutes.”

H: Selling point for short attention spans, no doubt.

M: No doubt. Or broader audiences. Heh. “In pieces like ‘On Waking,’ which it may play at Caramoor, the band employs extensive harmonics and extended improvisations punctuated only by a recurring four-note vocal line — Ms. Kihlstedt and the cellist double on vocals.”

H: I’m glad they may decide to use more than just sine tones. Grisey would be happy. [removes several strips of bacon from the skillet] Also, don't you think it's kinda a stretch to call a six-minute improvisation "extended"? A happening might be extended, but not a six-minute improv.

M: Or, it's like...

H: I know. Sex joke.

M: Mmm. “This, she said…”

H: What does “this” refer to?

M: Dunno. The "four-note vocal line"?

H: Dah-dah-dah dum!

M: “This, she said, results in a kind of abstraction that owes as much to the ethos of alternative rock as to the culture of the academy.

‘I find that audiences are getting much better at connecting the dots between different kinds of music,’ she said.”

H: Wait. Are we or aren’t we going to this festival?

M: Connect the dots.

H: Would you like toast, my abstract cryptographer?

M: Two pieces, please.

I dunno. I've liked Caramoor events in the past. Maybe the wonky description is coloring my preferences; but I think I'd still like to go.

H: We have nothing better to do, I suppose.

M: Either way, let’s find out what else is said about the state of arts advertising.

H: Good call.

M: “Connecting with audiences is a primary goal of Ethel, a quartet with two violins, a viola and a cello…”

H: Wait. Who wrote this, again?

M: Phillip Lutz, with two Ps, two Is, three Ls, an H, a U, a T, and a Z.

H: I suppose he has two eyes, four limbs, a torso, and a head, too.

M: You're funny. Not!

H: Nice. Nobody's used that reference since 1990!

M: Actually, 1992, chef-slave. Or 1993, if you want to count the sequel; but I don't know anyone who thinks that should count. [sips coffee]

“…the group adopts a ‘pedal to the metal’ attitude that plays down ‘the pursuit of perfection in classical performance,’ said Mary Rowell, one of the group’s violinists and a Juilliard graduate.”

H: That’s an odd thing to say.

M: You mean invoking a “pedal to the metal” attitude in order to downplay something?

H: Yeah, that. The idea is provocative, though.

M: ...if not logically problematic. “While the group’s playing hardly lacks precision […] the precision is never achieved at the expense of passion, Ms. Rowell said.

‘If we’re going to alienate audiences, it’s just not going to work,’ she said.”

H: More coffee?

M: Please. [ponders, sips] Do you think she’s implying that pursuing perfection alienates audiences? Or pursuing an antiquated ideal alienates them? Or is perfection unattainable? Or...

H: I think you’d be better off by asking what she means by “work.”

M: True. Or maybe I'll just send a letter of complaint to Julliard's office of academic standards.

H: Ha! [plates the last of the food, carries it over to table]

Alright, hun. Time to cry uncle. Breakfast is ready. Plus, this ham-fisted puffery is ruining my morning.

M: But you’ll miss my favorite part.

H: Yeah? What’s that? [sits at table beside Merdle]

M: Get this: “And the clarinetist Anthony McGill, who said that the pivotal works of his Caramoor debut would be by Debussy and Stravinsky…”



Wait for it.


H: Come on. My eggs are getting cold.

M: “...Debussy and Stravinsky — arguably new-music practitioners of their day…”

H: Did I read somewhere that Heidegger once argued this proposition and lost?

M: Shut up, chef-slave, and pass the Tabasco.


And where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?

Since the widespread electronic proliferation of journalism and information, opinions about music are abundant, free, and easy to find. Reviews of concerts abound, and insights and writings of The Public Writ Large are largely free for the reading. This has democratized things quite a bit, and is largely regarded as A Good Thing.

“So why have professional music critics at all?” one may well wonder. Why would any one pay to read someone’s review—or, indeed, pay someone to write one—when the same content is free and widely available?

The answer is simple, of course: it's not the same content. The keen insights and musical expertise of the savvy concertgoer, you see, do not always combine easily with a facility for (and love of) the bon mot. Even the best-intentioned casual amateur wordsmith and musical devotee cannot match the fragile excellence of the Professional Music Critic.

Witness with me now the peerless renderings of keen musical insight wrought in fine language by just such a professional.

Concert Review: Jethro Tull at Wolf Trap

Jacquie Kubin, The Washington Times

Ah, the Moonies. Surely their rigorous journalistic standards belie an old-fashioned devotion to the twin arts of writing and editing. Right?

Returning to the beautiful Filene Center stage at Wolf Trap Jethro Tull, 62 year old Ian Anderson fleet of foot and flute, recreated many of his greatest songs alongside his career long friend Martin Barre.

Already the lofty language does more than report, it communicates a sense of place and event. “Wolf Trap Jethro Tull’s” center stage must be fine indeed, as well as overjoyed to welcome the very band that contributed half its name!

The intricate prose then takes a rhapsodic twist when the fragment “long” (from the previously stated word “along”) makes an appearance, as an apparition, between “career” and “friend.” This asyntactic maneuver feints at the hyphenated compound-adjective construction “career-long friend” while simultaneously implying that Martin Barre is rather tall.

The evening was welcoming cool…

Ah, what a fanciful, evocative construction. Just when you think you know what the subject of a sentence is, you're wrong.

…after last week's heat wave and Wolf Trap was not only lush and lovely, but the people as nice as one expects from this heritage DC Metro Area venue.

Good weather for a show, and also the people were Nice! As one would expect; they are after all from the Nice Part of Town, I gather.

The evening begins with Gary Booker and Procol Harum (Geoff Whitehorn/lead guitar, Matt Pegg/bass guitar, Geoff Dunn/percussion and Josh Phillips/Hammond organ)…

The sudden change of tense transports the reader to the occasion and place of the concert, beyond the everyday boundaries of linear time. Furthermore, listing the band members in this casual, parenthetical, separated-by-slashes fashion gives the impression that one is typing reading from a press release concert program. It’s just like we were there alongside Jacquie!

…in their first stop on a 2010 fifteen venue tour.

Sorry, what? I think I lost my place.

The evening begins with Gary Booker and Procol Harum…in their first stop on a 2010 fifteen venue tour.

As the evening begins they...were…in their first stop? This bespeaks a clear vision wherein vowel choice in prepositions is largely a stylistic matter. And I’m not sure what a “venue tour” is, or why the band is on (in?) one from (apparently) 2010-15. I think?

…a 2010 fifteen venue tour

A philological fragment of carefully-constructed ambiguity, that. I mean, clearly. Right? Because, obviously, a professional writer with fifteen years of experience would only offer such an artistically-rendered sentence with both clear intent and the consent of one’s (presumably) eagle-eyed editor.

Silver haired booker sang ala Steve Winwood, with sheet music in place as the rest of the band provided a backbone that, with the overload of dueling keyboard and organ, might have been tough.

I’m having trouble with this sentence; my many years of reading and thinking about music have not prepared me for the deft mastery and complex wordplay at work here.

Silver haired booker sang ala…

Clearly the lead vocalist Gary Booker is not meant here, for “booker” is rendered in lower case. And “ala” must be some artfully infantilized onomatopoeia signifying nonsense musical syllables. Another feint at a compound adjective, but again sans hyphen. [Note to self: is this becoming a leitmotiv-like recurring fragment? Remember to investigate!]

Like poetry it reads.

Silver haired booker sang ala Steve Winwood,

with sheet music in place as the rest of the band provided a backbone that,

with the overload of dueling keyboard and organ,

might have been tough.

Weaving and bobbing impressionistically, implying without reporting. Such gorgeous prose, not afraid to take risks, boldly and openly flaunting not only bourgeois conventions of grammar and punctuation, but the very notion of linear narrative itself!

“Might have been tough.” Indeed.

I think it is safe to safe the guitarist Whitehorn was absolutely pleased to be on stage as he grimaced and grinned through his parts.

Is it ever really “safe to safe”? That’s the real question here; the existential skeleton of the hidden narrative of this avant-garde review is slowly revealing itself. "Review" hardly does justice; this work is more of an artistic gesture.

The group riffed through an approximate forty-five minute set…

We see, or rather are gently shown, how form and content act in concert. An approximate sentence reflects the approximate set. The organicism of the writing is stunning. Adverbs would have been the easy way out.

…that included "Once we had a Highway," "One eye on the Future, One Eye on the Past," "The Devil Came from Kansas," "Pandora's Box," "A Salty Dog," the audience favorite "Whiter Shade of Pale"…

We are made keenly aware of which words designate the names of songs; they are set off in quotation marks. Why, therefore, should one strictly stick to commonplace capitalization rules? With the burden of the naming-work clearly carried by punctuation, the choice of which words to capitalize (or not!) becomes merely another free play of style for the adept wordsmith. Witness:

"Once we had a Highway"

Verbs aren’t even nouns. Why should they be capitalized? The same goes for pronouns; who do they think they are, anyway?

"One eye on the Future, One Eye on the Past"

The “eye” on the future isn’t properly a being at all, and its lower-case status reflects its essence as becoming and not being (all Gang and no Satz, if you will), while the “Eye” on the past is fully articulated and present-determined, and therefore capitalized.

Thus is struck into stark relief the radical contingency and arbitrariness of our “real” rules and conventions for written communication. Real writers—artists, if you will—need no such strictures. Every withheld stroke of the shift key neuters the suffocating patriarchy of the cultural elite Rule Makers, who would even tell us which words are worthy of capitalization. Every gesture by the true, bold writer is the new tradition.

…and closing with the obscure "Kaleidoscope" from the band's first self-titled album (1967).

It should now be obvious that the author is also no novice to all things Prog Rock; not just everyone knows how many self-titled albums Procul Harum released. And while it would have been simple—perhaps trivial—enough to write “album of 1967,” the parenthetical citation “(1967)” invokes scholarly reference styles and admits that, yes, the academy is welcome here as well, further testifying to the broad scope whence flows this sagacity.

The band raised a bit of the late 60's era consciousness with a new bit of song, "War is Not Healthy,"

The delicious repetition of the word “bit” within a ten-word span re-emphasizes the plosive phoneme “b.” Obviously, this rhymes with “p” which stands for “pool”, yes—but also for “prose style.” And “is” is such a small word; although technically a verb, it looks like it could possibly be a preposition, and therefore may safely (but, ironically, at the same time radically) in lower case. The social commentary implied is both profound and clearly communicated: We the socially undercapitalized must rail against our capitalized/capitalist masters, and rally as many as possible to join our cause. Death to the capitalization police and their fascist corporate masters!

…a song that stands out not only for it being something entirely different but also as it is not instantly recognizable as Procol Harum.

The song was not only entirely different but also not instantly recognizable. On the surface this may seem redundant, yes, but closer reading reveals a subtler distinction.

The sentiments of this 2003-hard driving ballad would be as appropriate in 1969 as in 2010.

This simple insight is breathtaking in its wisdom. War, it makes one think, really is not healthy, not one bit. I am transported through time, across oceans and over mountains to a higher plane—a plane where people realize war is bad.

The predominantly older audience, with a few kids sprinkled in here and there, most of the young ones out with "dad" for the night, politely received Procol Harum, but they were obviously there for Jethro Tull.

Here the instinctive discretion of the seasoned writer is obvious, but the principled journalist must at least nod to the darker truths. I am referring, of course, to the punctuationally-marked “dad” which indicates obliquely that most of the “kids sprinkled in” were underage sex workers. Tactful and beautifully rendered; delicate, yet necessary.

Mr. [Ian] Anderson bounded, danced, and pranced throughout the one hour twenty minute set.

Why tarnish a sweet string of temporal description with conventional, and, strictly speaking, unnecessary hyphenated baggage? Usage is as usage does.

His energy was exuberant for a man decades younger than his years.

And here we see, finally, the real impetus of this review/manifesto: classic rock nostalgia tours force us to confront the widening gap between reality and the Lacanian real. “Age is a state of mind” may seem a trite message, but only to the city fathers who wag their fingers and stroke their beards and cluck their tongues, muttering “What’s to be done about this rock and roll business?”

In trade mark style, he was warm and jovial with the audience, peppering the performance with anecdotes and stories about the songs and the band.

It would seem that this “mark” was traded for a guitarist to be named later, a move which both reflects and undermines the free-market capitalist underpinnings of the music industry. A deft analysis that cuts to the quick.

Band mate for the last forty-plus year,

This is clearly a veiled condemnation of our backwards-looking stance on same-sex unions, cleverly disguised as a compositional error: “banned mate” would be a little too on point, no? This repressive trauma, however, has taken its toll on the would-be plural “year.”

…Martin Barre easily commanded the stage and audience with chops that have not degraded with time.

It is only the keenest musical insight that recognizes when musicians improve with four decades’ practice.

Breaking into Aqualung, striking each powerful chord with perfection brought the audience to their feet with grand appreciation for this master of the six-string.

“Aqualung,” being Tull’s best-known song, requires no nominally-indicative quotation marks to flaunt its titular status. Only a pedantic and banal writer (such as your humble narrator) would stick to a clearly-established (if arbitrary) naming convention one had articulated earlier in the article.

Jethro Tull's music has long been an mélange of musical styles incorporating American blues, jazz, Celtic, and folk along with a bit of classical influence.

Ah, the coup de grace. No longer content to merely prevent unsightly vowel elision (a bourgeois concern if there ever was one), the consonant-laden article “an” has been elevated to an higher status, one wherein any foreign or fancy technical word may take the enhanced particle to signify class or importance.

What are words, anyway? Words have their own life. They don’t follow your rules.

Never knowing the direction any one song may take makes enjoying the body of work presented so much more fulfilling.

Furthermore, utterly misunderstanding and misrepresenting the genre-bending (if occasionally tedious) polystylistic meanderings of Jethro Tull is clearly a moral and artistic choice rather than a sign of willful ignorance and depraved indifference to any musical sense.

The set wound in and around their library including the powerfully bluesy New Day Yesterday,

Yes! Stand athwart your own naming conventions! Become the ruling body!

…with Anderson on harmonica and his sardonic style playing to the songs sultry style.

Prose style is about so much more than appropriate placement of (so-called) “words” and a basic understanding of the punctuation rules governing possessives, don’t you think? Speak it!

Closing with the encore Locomotive Breath enhanced by two of those large 70's arena style balloons left the very polite group quickly leaving the center happy to have had the chance, once again to spend an evening with the lads.

And, finally, the practice of omission or inclusion of commas to divide sentences into comprehensible phrases is, in the final analysis, stripped of its oppressive imperialist power and demoted to impotent, decorative status. Balloons full of nitrous oxide make for a mellow crowd indeed.


Perhaps this close reading comes across as far-fetched, or even implausible. Given, though, that the only real alternative is to conclude that we must convene an international tribunal to address the worst crime ever perpetrated in the English language, allowances must be made.


Friday Quickie: Cop-out Edition

One thing that is certain in the world of print media criticism: space is limited, which makes the art of description difficult. However, in a nine-hundred-word review, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

It’s good to be back
Pablo Bardin
Buenos Aires Herald

It’s really a good and long review, except for one part.

[Composer Unsuk Chin] is a disciple of Ligeti and it shows;

I’ll bite. How does her music embody the distinctive qualities of the late master?

…her music is sensitive and transparent, and it was conducted with virtuoso ability by [Shi-Yeon Sung]. [it. mine]

You could never reduce anyone else’s music to such precision.

Figure Google Search. “Sensitive and transparent stereo expansion control”


You won second prize in a beauty contest--collect $10

Here’s some puffery from the Seattle Times:

Seattle Symphony takes on Mendelssohn’s ambitious 'Lobgesang'
Tom Keogh

However, there’s only so much you can say about the piece, because...

...sorry, Mendelssohn, you are not Beethoven.

"The 'Lobgesang' is a choral symphony," says [SSO music director Gerard] Schwarz. "Beethoven's Ninth [completed in 1824] was the first."

Eat Beethoven’s dust, bitch!

After Beethoven died, everyone was afraid of composing choral symphonies that would be compared to it. But Mendelssohn went ahead and did something unique.

Yeah? What was that?

The first three movements are purely instrumental.


After that...




After that, profit!

Flow chart 1. The sales pitch


Hey, why not ask for more?

And so nine orchestras and festivals co-commissioned a new, post-Pulitzer work from Jennifer Higdon.

Jennifer Higdon premieres concerto “On a Wire”
Philadelphia Inquirer
David Patrick Stearns

Though her Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto limited the soloist role to a single instrument...

Hasn’t she heard that bigger is better? She must not love America very much.

...Higdon got out from under the long history of concertos by writing the new work for six soloists, specifically the contemporary- music [sic] group eighth blackbird.

I presume the question confronting her was “how do I outdo my last big hit?” Her answer, via Stearns: less history; more soloists; hot new music group.

Got it?

(An aside: is there a limit to the number of soloists one can have in order that they retain their status as soloist? Anyway.)

Members of that group think nothing of playing multiple instruments in a given piece, often switching between piccolo and flute or violin and viola.

That’s cool. However, it’s pretty standard fare for flute players to also play piccolo and violinists to play viola. That’s not the best way to support the point that they, and the piece, are out of the ordinary.

In addition, Higdon’s concerto asks its players to practice “extended techniques” - plucking and bowing the innards of the piano...

Not that I find this passage terribly worded—close, though—instead, I take issue with the interplay of description with the premise, that the piece is new and innovative.

You and I know that extended techniques have been practiced for some time (or depending on the argument, since the very beginnings of music). Yet, to place “extended techniques” in scare/air quotes, today, puts them in a position of being exoticisms (outside of a norm), which we know not to be the case. So, I can only assume that othering “extended techniques” is an intentionally misleading puffery strategy.

Please feel free to take issue with that; but I hope it will become somewhat evident, below.

In addition, Higdon’s concerto asks its players to practice “extended techniques” - plucking and bowing the innards of the piano, much like the techniques pioneered by...[?]

1. Erik Satie – Piège de Méduse (1913); inserted sheets of paper into the piano
2. Heitor Villa-Lobos – Chôros no.8 (1925); again, paper inserts
3. Maurice Delage – Ragamalika (1912-22); cardboard inserts
4. Henry Cowell – Aeolian Harp (1923); manipulation of piano strings directly
5. John Cage – Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48); nuts, bolts, doodads, etc.

...much like the techniques pioneered by one of Higdon’s teacher’s, George Crumb.

I also left out all the other, lesser-known experiments with prepared piano and/or playing inside the piano. (The above was mostly found via Wikipedia)

So, circa 1970 George Crumb, you say?

Call me paranoid, but scare quotes around “extended techniques” are patronizing, as well as ignorant, false, and archaic; plus, I sense a bloated case of name-dropping.


A few awkward, unrelated moments:

Always a seeker of extra-symphonic sounds, in the past she's trawled the aisles of Home Depot for trinkets that would give her orchestration an ethereal jingle.

Can I assume, then, that junk from True Value would have given her music a transcendental glow?

Higdon has perhaps never cast her net so wide.


So many kinds of musical incidents are contained within the 25-minute concerto that you'd think Higdon was inspired by the far-flung literary imagery of the Leonard Cohen song "Bird on a Wire."

Were there program notes?

However, Higdon, 48, swears she has never heard (or heard of) of the song.


Back to the meat of the issue.

The Atlanta premiere with a longtime collaborator like Spano turned out to be exactly what she needed in the wake of winning the Pulitzer in April.

I wonder why.

“I think you explored a whole new room in your musical mansion," Atlanta music director Robert Spano told Higdon on Sunday after a post-concert toast.

“I'm hearing things that sound exactly like you, but I haven't heard them before."

So, it’s new, but not too new? Like you just know Toy Story 3 is going to be good, because the others were?

That's one reason he scheduled a recording session the day after Thursday's premiere.

The other reason?

His plan is to rush-release the concerto as a classical-music single.

...to capitalize on her success. I love the free market co-mingled with the arts!

...[it is] yet another triumph in a series of Higdon works that have made her one of the most immediately embraced living American composers.

Example 1. How another immediately embraced American composer followed up his success (Hammerman).

Example 2. God Bless America rendered by the stylings of Canadian Celine Dion.


Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day is Benjamin Lees (b. January 8, 1924; d. May 31, 2010).

Benjamin Lees was part of a generation of American composers (mostly born in the 1910s and 20s) who remained beholden to many European classical traditions, yet embraced a modern tonal language. Lees quite staunchly avoided modernism, serialism, and later minimalism, and yet differed from many of his contemporaries by avoiding programmatic music, or returning to the excesses of romanticism.

Lees, an American born to Russian parents in China, served prominently on the faculties of the Peabody, Julliard and Manhattan schools of music. He developed as a composer under the likes of Halsey Stevens and Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California, and later under "bad boy of music" George Antheil. For the most part, Lees always remained a bit of an outcast in American music, primarily due to his rejection of the prevailing isms of the day. His music is often compared to that of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartok, and of course, contemporaries like Walter Piston, who also shared his belief in absolute music, or music for music's sake. Lees music seems to have remained remarkably consistent throughout the bulk of his career. Although distinctly modern in style, Lees once said, "I consider form on a par with expression," a position not commonly expressed amongst American composers in the 1960s and 70s.

Nicolas Slonimsky described Benjamin Lees’ music as “…so personal, so distinct, so assertive are the stylistic and idiomatic usages in the works of Benjamin Lees that an immediately recognizable Gestalt is formed from an attentive perusal of his scores.”

Perhaps the best examples of his style are his most well-known works. Even by the composer's own admission, amongst his best works are his often performed symphonies -- the Symphony No.4 (“Memorial Candles”), written for the 40th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, and Symphony No.5 (“Kalmar Nyckel”), which received a Grammy nomination in 2003. [ When asked about having lost the award (to Dominick Argento), Lees responded, “I came back, I took out the garbage, and life goes on.”]

However, he has many other compositions of note, including his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (1964) and Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1958). When asked about why he wrote the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, which has recently become his most performed work, given that the composer admitted that he anticipated very few performances, Lees responded, "I needed the money."

Embeddence Lees: Piano Concerto No. 2 (mvt. III) -- like many of his works, the Piano Concerto No. 2 is composed using a contemporary sense of extended tonality, and makes considerable use of constantly shifting meters, which was the style at the time.

Lees was never shy, nor apologetic about this stylistic choices, which certainly kept him from reaching greater notoriety.

Of serialism and the 12-tone technique Lees had this to say in an interview in 1992: “I tried the technique, but couldn’t do it. It was like making love to a corpse.”

Of his own compositional style he said, "There are two kinds of composers. One is the intellectual and the other is visceral. I fall into the latter category. If my stomach doesn't tighten at an idea, then it's not the right idea."

You can read an interview Lees gave in 1987 with Bruce Duffie here. It is an interesting discussion as they cover many themes in the composer's life and music, and touch upon topics such as the future of contemporary music and the symphony orchestra.

Lees, who died on May 31st, at the age of 86, has mostly been an unfortunately neglected composer. Although not much of his music was recorded, what is available (like with all Composers of the Day!) deserves a good listen. The New York Times has an excellent story on the life of the composer here.

figure composer of the day: Benjamin Lees


Time to Hook up the Ivy

That's a bad pun, I know.

From Providence’s own Brown Daily Herald, which sounds like a pun, but is not:

The Brown University Chorus filled Sayles Hall with songs of worship and love Saturday night.

Okay, so not the review fare on which we at the Detritus usually aim our sights, but, nonetheless, there are issues worth considering.

Featuring five works from various genres, the hour-long concert elicited thunderous applause and a standing ovation.


The chorus, which is composed of 50 singers and is one of Brown’s oldest performing groups, began the concert with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil,” [Op. 37] a Christian song of worship.

Impressive! It’s not a small piece at all (about an hour in length).

Wait. The concert was only an hour long!? Oh. Oh! Ugh.

That they sang excerpts is, well, not very impressive. Failing to mention that they only sang excerpts is misleading.


The performance started off peacefully but quickly rose to a crescendo, giving the audience its first glimpse of the chorus’s musical abilities.

They have the ability to sing soft and loud. In other words, loads of ability.

They also sang Robert Evett’s “The Mask of Cain” and Stephen Chatman’s “There is Sweet Music,” followed by Kirby Shaw’s choreographed “Plenty Good Room,” which concluded the first half.

The second half of the concert featured a performance of “Narcissus,” a cantata written and arranged by James Woodman. Normally, a composer is responsible only for arranging the music, but Woodman also “wrote the poem itself,” Jodry said.

He made it up all by “himself”! Please.

After the piece’s last movement, the audience exploded into a standing ovation.

Figure 1. Old-timey gags are awesome.

Okay. This is all well and good. It sounds like it was a concert, with potentially interesting stuff. But:

[Conductor Frederick] Jodry said it was imperative to choose a “wide array of music” so that the audience didn’t lose interest, since the performance was so long.

There are several issues here. First, I don’t doubt that the pieces exemplified that “wide array,” but I take issue with the choice of program. If it wasn’t musically interesting enough to sustain itself without gimmicks of some sort or another, then why not choose different, perhaps better, music? It seems to me that the conductor made the job difficult for himself. Why not just perform the entire Rachmaninov? I’m not a huge fan, but the quality of the work and audience interest is guaranteed.

Second, and this goes hand in hand with the first, I think the conductor underestimated his audience. We’re talking about Brownians, smart people—smart people who have an interest in choral music. I mean, what more can you ask for? This isn’t a high school choir performing for their parents, after all.

Finally, if our critic’s concert time estimation was more-or-less correct, about an hour, then, generically, what does this say about concert culture? Nothing good. Might it be time to start phasing out Mahler, again?

The first three pieces were distinctly heavier than the fourth, which carried a more whimsical tone and “made the audience grin,” accomplishing its purpose of keeping the audience engaged, Jodry said.


Orchestra director: Let’s make the audience grin so they don’t nod off.
Board member 1: Huzzah!
Board member 2: What’ll we program? It should be topical, no doubt.
Board member 1: We need some kind of star power, too.
Orchestra director: I know! Let’s have a tribute to Teddy Kennedy, with...
Keith Lockheart: ...with narration from Morgan Freeman!
Board member 1: Huzzah!
Board member 2: And Ed Harris!
Board member 1: Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!
Orchestra director: Why not? Why not go all out and get Robert DeNiro and Cherry Jones, too?
Board member 1: That might be a bit much. Don’t you think?
Board member 2: And video!


Critic Dispenses with Actually Attending Concert

Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic recently made a tour of the country and many of the reviews were mixed in their reception of the orchestra, and of their conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. It seems that all critics want to discuss any more is Gustavo Dudamel, apparently even those critics who didn't actually review one of his concerts. But since his midi-chlorian counts are so high, and he is presumably the chosen one, this has caused quite the ruckus in the Arts & Leisure sections of newspapers around the country.

After some Southern California critics defended Dudamel against the attacks, Arthur Kaptainis, of The Montreal Gazette, decided to weigh in on the subject himself.

When west meets east, an orchestra stumbles

And an angel gets his wings?

[Subtitle] Tepid reviews of Los Angeles Philharmonic tour knock Dudamel off the podium as world's hottest conductor

I'm not sure everyone thought he was that hot. I mean he's cute and everything, but he's not Brad Pitt hot.

figure dudamel: Scored an 8.6 on hotornot.com.

It is not official.

Well, not until next month's meeting of the Conductors Hotness Association (CHA), but let's speculate anyway, shall we?

It could not be. But the case at least can be made that Gustavo Dudamel -he of the 29-year-old curly tresses, boundless Venezuelan energy and even more boundless American media attention -is no longer the hottest classical property in the world.

Well, that's not really fair, downtown LA has never been the place of prime real estate like the coasts.

figure more dudamel: Dudamel and his boundless Venezuelan energy.

Not after he led his Los Angeles Philharmonic on an eight-city American tour and got the critical equivalent of a smattering of applause and a slow shuffle to the exits.

They danced towards the exits? Applause and dancing -- sounds like a good concert to me.

So tepid and qualified were the reviews Dudamel collected that a Los Angeles Times media commentator this week devoted a hefty column to an analysis of the reaction.

That article:
On the Media: Are Gustavo Dudamel critics showing their East Coast bias?

East Coast snobbery? Anti-L. A. bias? Hype-machine blowback?

Apparently, the LA Phil are the USC Trojans of major metropolitan symphony orchestras.

The only possibility not given serious consideration is that the concerts (many featuring what commentators described as ill-conceived and sloppily realized performances of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 Pathethique) were, in fact, bad and accurately described as such.

Wait, what concert are you reviewing again?

Not that the blowback and East-Coast-snobbery theories can be discounted.

Sure they can...and I bet you can show us how. Why don't you give it try, just for us? Please?

I am myself an East Coast snob who taught himself a long time ago to view the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a substratospheric orchestra...

See, you're doing fabulously. They orchestra has always sort of sucked. And...

...comprising players who were not necessarily the best in town (those being the musicians employed by the movie industry).

Yeah, but how serious could those musicians be, since they're required to play so many different styles of music. To have many styles as a musician, is really to have no style at all.

Even the rationale usually evoked for giving the L.A. Phil a promotion to the top rung -its stylistic flexibility -can just as easily be used as a stick to beat it with.

Hmmm? Your ideas are intriguing...how would you fault an orchestra for it's ability to play all different kinds of classical music?

To have many styles as an orchestra is to have none.

Of course. That is a problem. Perhaps a committee should be formed to decide what kinds of music the LA Phil is allowed to perform and which kinds would be too stylistically flexible?

But this all a bit abstract, how about some anecdotal hearsay and clearly unbiased opinion?

When the flutist Mathieu Dufour last January chose to join the Chicago Symphony after an extended trial with the Philharmonic, he was quoted by the Chicago Sun-Times as saying the L.A. players "have no tradition there -no tradition of sound and no tradition of working together as a dedicated ensemble."

Ooh, this is a good point. Clearly this sounds like Dudamel's fault to me, seeing as it happened a full 9 months before he took over as musical director.

But of course, on the other hand, Mathieu Dufour is French.

The Frenchman promptly wrote a conciliatory mass email to ex-colleagues claiming he was "grossly misquoted," but it is hard to believe the writer of this interview (Andrew Patner, who stands by it) invented the comment.

So, if Patner's not lying, then Dufour is, right? And now you're now using the evidence of a person you're accusing of lying?

But of course, on the other hand, Mathieu Dufour is French.

Indeed, in another quotation, Dufour returns to the theme by predicting that the Philharmonic players "will have some exciting concerts there for sure as they go along."

That does sound pretty damning.

Also, what does this have to do with Dudamel?

All the same, Dufour claims that "in every rehearsal" he missed "what makes up the Chicago sound: the sense that every member of the CSO knows that you cannot ever go halfway and that every subtle detail is important."

But, to be fair, Dufour is French.

But back to Dudamel and the blowback theory.

Okay, back to Dudamel, who, while no bearing no responsibility for mediocre playing and half-assed approach of the orchestra, is to blame for the exciting, yet flawed performances?

It is true that heavy publicity (peaking with a 60 Minutes spot delicately titled Gustavo the Great) creates a huge target for traditionalists who regard culture, discipline and experience as more useful qualities on the podium than good looks, high voltage and an undefined Latin wow factor.

To be fair, he's also short and chunky.

Of course, Dudamel is more the victim than the author of this excess. He did not choose the nickname "Dude"...

The nickname chose him?

figure the dude: "Fuck sympathy! I don't need your fuckin' sympathy, man, I need my fucking johnson! "

...and probably had limited control over the use of his image.
In any case, the job of the critic is to set aside these irrelevancies and listen closely to the music.

Which is why you've brought them up here, and included unrelated stories about people who never played under Dudamel?

And, exactly how is this evidence supporting your thesis that there is no east coast bias at work in those negative reviews?

Which, by and large, the tour critics did.

And you're basing this opinion on...?

While there was one arguable case of East Coast snobbery -an article in New York Magazine titled Good Enough for Los Angeles -the bulk of the critiques, far from expressions of Schadenfreude, read like strenuous efforts to cooperate with the Dudamel publicity machine and find virtue in concerts that were not, even at the level of basic execution, very good.

Again, which concert did you attend?

And just for those keeping score at home, the way I show it, you've provided zero examples clearing any critic of east coast bias, but have freely admitted your own snobbery, and accused an article in New York Magazine of bias.

So it's...East Coast Snobbery 2, Fair Unbiased Reporting 0.

A revealing comparison can be drawn...

Good, it's about time for a revealing comparison.

...with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who would probably be recognized (even at the advanced age of 35) as the Hottest Young Conductor in the World if the title had not been conferred by the machine to Dudamel.

figure nezet-seguin: Andy Roddick in his Yannick Nezet-Seguin Halloween costume.

I have never seen a negative review of a YNS live performance outside Montreal.

Let's prove we don't have an east coast bias, by making a comparison to an east coast conductor. Good call.

European critics, with no hype to confirm or contradict, are mostly in raptures.

So, it's not really a good comparison after all, since those European critics are not responding to hype, unlike the east coast critics who reviewed Dudamel, and, as you point out in this very article, have lots of hype to wade through.

With cause: The Rotterdam Philharmonic tour concerts in Montreal and Toronto were interpretively distinctive and technically as good as they could be.

Clearly, this was because they weren't conducted by Dudamel? Or was it because Dufour didn't not play with that orchestra?

Let us hope the producers of 60 Minutes do not notice.

Yes...let's hope...that.


Overhype is not unknown on the island of Montreal. It has not been so long since Big Brother posters of Kent Nagano peered from every bus stop. Or has it?

I don't know. Presumably you live there...are there posters of Kent Nagano staring at you at every bus stop?

figure nagano: Kent Nagano is watching you.

The Kentster...

Sorry, but "Dude" is a much better nickname.

...next September will enter the last year of a five-year contract.

It's like what Lenin said... you look for the person who will benefit, and, uh, uh...

One way of gauging his no-longer-newness is the fact that the month of May was essentially an exercise in self-reflection, even nostalgia, as the conductor returned to Beethoven (he opened his tenure in 2006 at Place des Arts with the Ninth Symphony).

Beethoven? Really? How original for a conductor to associate himself with Beethoven.

On Thursday, he concluded the season with Mahler's Ninth Symphony, the score he led to universal acclaim on his first appearance with the MSO in 1999.

That's nice. I like that symphony too, but what does this have to do with presumed east coast bias against Dudamel?


Kaptainis' comments may all prove to be valid, but it does seem disingenuous to pass judgement without having seen Dudamel in person yourself. And if he has seen him live, he really should have made that much more clear in the article. Also, some sort of evidence would be nice.