On Marching Bands

John Mackey, contemporary composer, has a great entry on his blog regarding the functional importance of the marching band in the music world. Money quote:

My attitude is that whenever somebody uses your music, at that moment they’re picking your music over every other piece they could pick, and that’s an honor. If a conductor programs your piece, they’re picking that piece for that place on the program over every other piece they could possibly play. So if somebody wants to use my music in a marching show — and again, if they, you know, get permission — I’m flattered and honored.

I think that says a lot, even outside of the marching band medium, perhaps in relation to my last post.

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Transcriptions/Popular Music…why or why not?

Warning: Here is my opinion on a mildly controversial topic in the performing arts. Read at your own risk.

Before the main point is addressed, perhaps this topic can begin more abstractly by asking a different question. What does one seek to be stimulated in a musical composition? There are a number of things, certainly, but I’d like to focus on one element: I believe all (or at least a large majority of) music can be looked at in three stages (from a macro perspective):

1) Presentation
2) Conflict
3) Resolution

Consider sonata form in common practice period tonality. The exposition offers the initial set of materials and presents it to the audience. The development represents the conflict through harmonic instability, motivic chaos, and other various compositional techniques. And, of course, the recapitulation reintroduces the ideas from the exposition so that the listener has a sense of completion. Without going into too more detail about key areas, theme areas, etc., sonata form works pretty well with this idea of Presentation, Conflict, Resolution.

On a smaller level, phrase by phrase, and section by section offers this idea of presentation, conflict, and resolution. Phrases can have “high” and “low” points. The beginning of any phrase serves as its own presentation, of course. If the “high” point of the phrase is thought of as conflict (a heightened sense of urgency), resolution can be found at the end phrase, or soon after in a following phrase. I do think on a micro level, sometimes Conflict and Resolution aren’t necessarily in the same order, because composers will link phrases together, and sometimes it is necessary to end a phrase in conflict so that it can be continued in a different section. However, these elements are still very prevalent in phrase by phrase form.

From the perspective of a full symphony, I’d like to offer Beethoven 5 as an example. The first movement, in c minor, presents the initial mood of the work, which is based in conflict. I think this offers an example of a case where Presentation and Conflict are one in the same. This fiery movement, perhaps the most famous in all classical music, ends without a true sense of finality. Beethoven’s turbulent storm is quieted in the second movement, a temporary resolution of inner dialogue. The third movement begins stately, regally, with a sense of finality, but Beethoven starts to question himself in the movement. The third movement builds with a climax of conflict into the fourth movement, in C Major. The fourth movement is the triumphant and final resolution that Beethoven has eluded (in degree of finality) through the entire symphony. And while each movement works individually as an example of conflict/resolution, the overall direction of the symphony fits as well.

To make this even simpler, I will simply say that Conflict/Resolution can be summed up as Contrast. Points of contrast, through texture, harmony, melody, dynamics, timbre, are what create conflict and resolution. Conflict cannot exist without resolution (and vice versa), because of the integral need for contrast. Love could not exist without hate, good without evil, and so forth. I truly believe this is why much twentieth century “classical” music is disengaging for audiences; they have difficulty discerning the composer’s attempts to present conflict and resolution.

All right, without belaboring the point (because the truest details of the theory of conflict and resolution in music require elaborate discussions as a topic of their own regard), I will move on. What does this have to do with the blog title? Everything. I firmly believe that this idea of conflict/resolution is a vital part of the human experience. This is what makes the field of “classical” music so stimulating and engaging, it is the pinnacle of conflict/resolution as penned by the greatest musical minds of all time. Each individual piece on a concert or recital should offer these contrasts. However, I think that, for a truly successful program, one must consider the macro flow of a performance. Too often this is ignored.

How does one program variation? A number of ways, I think. First, when the opportunity is available, one should seek various mediums of expression. For instance, joint recitals in which two different instruments are performing offers contrast. Unaccompanied works versus those with piano accompaniment offer variety. As a conductor of a large (or even chamber ensemble), programming pieces with varieties of instrumentation isn’t difficult.

Another way is through musical style/era, which will bring me to my main point shortly thereafter. An entire concert of Baroque masterworks is not nearly as engaging to an audience as one that is varied, offering different palettes. I think eras and stylistically different works serve as the ginger at a sushi bar, clearing palettes for the next carefully chosen bites. It is my belief that this is one of the fundamental necessities for engaging audiences, preparing them to hear new music (particularly that music which may not be as palatable). If one is to program Webern, it is balanced out well with a light work. Too often musicians create programs that are constantly engaging, never allowing the audience time to breathe.

Transcriptions and Popular music (meaning not generally identified as Western Art Music), particularly those of easier-to-digest opera arias, film music, even some pop music (carefully chosen), can offer an opportunity to breathe, particularly before a final work in a recital or program. An intermission offers this same chance to breathe, in the case of the Orchestra as well, but this is a practice well accepted in the performing world and needs no discussion. I think entr’actes, intermezzi, and overtures in opera all serve this sort of function. While there is serious artistic merit in the works, they are lighter by nature and offer contrast to the dense artistic material that often follows it. Remember, the keyword is contrast. Conflict, resolution. This even means abstractly, in terms of intellectual or aesthetic engagement. If conflict means a departure away, and resolution means a return, the conflict/resolution diversity can imply a change from “fast-slow-fast”, “lyrical-exciting”, “intellectually overwhelming, underwhelming, overwhelming”, etcetera.

There is some beautiful popular music out in the world. Jazz standards, certain ballads, and so forth, that are favorites outside of the classical world. Perhaps more classical musicians should seek the opportunity to integrate said works, in an artistic way, into their programming. At the very least, with an open mind. So many people scoff at the notion of performing a John Williams piece on an orchestra concert. Or if a violinist were to do a transcription of Stardust on a recital. But, if such pieces were carefully selected in a way that complements the “more artistic” material, then the opportunity exists. Obviously, it’s a tight rope to walk. But it can, and perhaps should, be done. Examples:

This weekend the Colorado State University Orchestra programmed an Overture by a composer at East China Normal University (this was a collaboration concert with performing members from the university in attendance from China), Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and Beethoven Symphony No. 9. To be frank, the overture wasn’t greatly written. To sum my opinions, it feels like the Eastern Hemisphere’s perception of American classical music, John Williams light, with perhaps a hint of Prokofieff. Either way, most of the orchestra did not care for the piece. Understandably, their palettes are used to critically examining masterworks and finding the deepest of meanings, the most intricate compositional techniques employed, and if a piece seems to lack a majority, it is dismissed as fluff. At the same time, after the concert, I overheard so many audience members who adored the Chinese overture. They were generally less fond of the Stravinsky, which undoubtedly is a work of genius. And, then, of course, Beethoven 9, the work that sells out crowds, an audience favorite, a work that is both magical in live performance and brilliantly composed. And, while there was dissatisfaction in some orchestra personnel with the exact repertoire, I found the light-deeply serious-brilliant presentation to be well crafted. The overture served as the presentation of the orchestra, the Stravinsky became the conflict through its dissonant harmonies and thick intellectual engagement, and the Beethoven was the Resolution of the triumph of the human spirit.

I’d like to offer one more example, with a video. In a collaborative recital with my colleague and good friend Christopher Martinez, we programmed two transcriptions of songs in the popular music genre as an encore. Our recital included works by CPE Bach, Debussy, Reinecke, Chopin, and Schubert. We added “Pie Jesu” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem and “Amen” from Jewel’s Pieces of You album. Both of these pieces are not as “well written” as the greats. The Webber served as the palette cleanser between the emotionally invested Chopin Ballade No. 1 and the technically brilliant Schubert Variations on “Trockne Blumen”. And the Jewel was the pensive epilogue to the artistic statements we presented through the evening. I took the piano part, just chords, and fleshed out an entire accompaniment. Chris reworked the registration to have contrast within the piece. Our interpretation/remake of the work was artistic, (of course, this is my opinion, one might feel otherwise), and I felt justified in performing the Webber and Jewel. What do you think? Should classical musicians venture into melding the bridge between the classical and popular divide? One of my life long goals is to narrow the divide, bringing classical music into the absolute mainstream idiom, in hops that the masters of the past influence those writing today (in different genres), and perhaps classical musicians can draw inspiration from those works which saturate the popular realm today.

If you’d like the playlist link for the entire recital, click here.

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Strange Dreams

I had a strange dream last night. Somehow it began with a performance of the Stravinsky aria I accompanied last night; the performance was in the daytime, and I supposedly had another performance that night. Many of my Colorado friends were present. I nailed the Stravinsky accompaniment (this should have been my first indicator this was a dream), and then after intermission I did the Brahms op. 118 no. 2, which is a piece one of my students is doing. After the concert I had someone come up to me as an adoring fan. As for the physical appearance of my fan, I’m sure said person was the concoction of my inner Id. But, the personality of a well educated individual was also present, so perhaps the ego was present as well.

Somehow, and most of this is muddy, the dream transitioned into an outdoor zebra-fest barbecue swimming party and recital hosted by one of the professors at Colorado State and her husband. Suddenly, instead of on the mountains, it felt like we were more on the beach.

I had to perform again, this time the repertory included a bunch of jazz standards and light fluff of piano music. Did I mention there were zebras? And a lot of people in swimming attire, bikinis, trunk shorts, et al?

Then after that, I went to go find the person who came up to me after the recital, but with no avail. I started to wonder if I dreamed that person up in a past night. I was completely oblivious that I was, in fact, dreaming, while the notion that part of what I dreamt was a dream was quite present. I asked a friend if said person was real, and he insisted I did not dream that. I was shortly greeted by two of my students, both of which were not even teenagers. And then I woke up.

I wish I had a dream analyst to tell me what it all could mean. For now, I’ve had a rehearsal, a lesson at which I accompanied, and now I’m off to practice, then class, and then Beethoven 9 mass concert tonight.

Colorado State is in a collaboration with East China Normal University, and ECNU sent about thirty music students to spend the week with us to sing in the chorale for Beethoven 9. Last night was a joint “East-West Week Collaborative Voice Recital”, which was amazing. I heard some wonderful rep from China that I hope to become more familiar with, as well as many standard arias, opera scenes, and a few art songs. It was an incredible concert; the symbolic expression that music can speak where words cannot was never more true; in rehearsals for the collaborative works, some of their singers did not speak English, nor did ours speak Chinese. Yet, they were able to communicate and rehearse through music notation and by musical demonstration. If that’s not a powerful statement, brought to fruition by a collaborative performance, I’m not sure what is.

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Corigliano

Today, I am presenting my case in my contempoary music seminar why John Corigliano is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. Perhaps the details will make their way onto the blog at a later date, but I just wanted to say there’s something absolutely breathtaking about Corigliano’s cyclical genius, his beautiful palette of colors, his sounds of textural diversity, his melodies and catchy motives, and the intellectual depth and social commentary within each carefully constructed work.

This morning, after a week of ups and downs (mostly downs), listening to “Prayer” from Corigliano’s Symphony No. 3, “Circus Maximus”, sent chills up my spine (as it always does). I’m fortunate enough that, even after all of these years, I am still incredibly moved by beautiful music, and this morning was no exception. I hope to never become too cynical to be emotionally heightened through music as so many in our profession fall prey. If you are in need of a soul search, beautiful and bittersweet moments of hope intertwined with nostalgia, this movement is for you.

“Prayer” from Symphony No. 3, “Circus Maximus”, John Corigliano

Money moment of power is at 4:40, but it only works if you listen through. Truly, this reflects the triumph of the human spirit over the drones of society.

You can find the full work here. Buy it. Support the arts. Support the brilliant musicians of the University of Texas who worked their tails off to pull this off. Support UT Austin for commissioning Corigliano to write the work. Support Corigliano so he continues to make masterworks.

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Beethoven 9 (again!)

I know, all I’ve talked about lately is Beethoven 9. Still. Last night was the first combined rehearsal with the orchestra and choruses. And there is nothing like hearing the fourth movement to Beethoven 9 live. There’s something mystical about it, something that a recording can’t truly replicate. Particularly when the chorus numbers in the hundreds. Here is an excerpt from rehearsal last night. It’s interesting how such large numbers, such loud moments, can cover up some of the intonation issues (not all, of course) in an orchestra.

Excerpt from 4th movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9

Anyways, I’m actually looking forward to a massive performance on Friday. For all of my gripes about tempi choices, intonation issues, not counting, the scherzo in general, there are tutti moments like this that make it all worth it. All right, one more excerpt.
Beethoven 9, excerpt #2

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Then and now…

The life of a musician, particularly one at the student level, is often a frustrating daily venture of practicing and incremental, perhaps imperceptible,  development.  Too often, at least personally, one gets frustrated at the routine of technique development for the exact reason of not being able to track development.  Only after a long period of time, in reflection, does one see the value of dedication and consistency.  Having the opportunity to work on Beethoven 9 this week has provided many challenges and offered the chance for self reflection.  I conducted excerpts of Beethoven 9 at the Bard Conductor’s Institute back in 2007, when I was quite the undergraduate.  I put a comparison video up between then and now.  It’s a good feeling to know that, over time, you are doing something right, and steps forward are being taken, even if they’re  not discernible on a daily basis.


Cheers for Fridays.

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How to tell a story – conducting indulgences, lesson 1

I think if I ever teach a seminar or college in course, the first month of classes will involve gesture based emotions and story telling.  While a wealth of music throughout the centuries has been written for its serious academic and formulaic properties, owing nothing to external influences, all music has the potential to be affective to any individual.  I think this is one of the defining elements of what separates the perception of “music” and “noise”.  For more about that, please see my essay “Towards a Definition of Music”.  In either case, there exists an abundance of repertoire that does draw from external references: poetry, literature, paintings, personal relationships, personal crises, other composers, events in history, mythology, cultures and heritage, to name several.  These influences may be trivial, subtle, over-the-top, profoundly hidden ala the Hemingway iceberg, or blatantly professed in a superficial manner.  Even more profoundly invigorating is the notion that a composer’s intentions may align separately from the performer’s perception which may strike a different resonance in that of the listener.  This is what makes great music “great”.  I think this applies to all of the arts.

In any case, as a conductor, the ultimate responsibility of music performance lies in that of ensemble preparation, guiding interpretation, and communicating with performers and the audience.  The interpretation of a work offers the most flexibility for personal touch.  Certainly there are schools of thought that dictate the amount of liberty a conductor has in this endeavor; while we currently exist in a fairly restricted environment for conductor interpretation, there have been periods of extreme flexibility (which I believe we will be entering again in the next 15-20 years).  In any case, it is the conductor’s duty to navigate the ensemble and listener through any given work, creating points of contrast through carefully chosen phrasing, sensitivity to musical color and texture, and moderation of pacing in regards to tempo choices, etc.  What these strict elements of musical terminology essentially mean for the non listener can be summarized as being told a story.

That’s what music essentially is – well, a bulk majority of it – it’s a journey from start to finish.  Through lyrics, through motivic ideas, and so forth, the listener is presented with a fleeting thought that is in turn explored and considered.  The aggregate of these thoughts and musings comprises the work as a whole.  A great composer takes care that every note, every episode, every idea, fits intricately within a larger framework.  As a conductor, the ability to make these formal structures seem visceral in the shape of a story provides the foundation for which music is listened to.  Without this direction, the conductor is not a visionary.  He is nothing more than a traffic cop.

On a personal note of enlightenment, I am working on Beethoven 9 next week with the CSU Symphony Orchestra.  The way I’ve been approaching Beethoven 9 has been from a very technical perspective, with critical eyes towards harmonic progressions, key areas, formal structures, orchestration, motivic development, and theme areas.  What I had forgotten in my month of preparation, only to be realized about 3:00 this morning when I couldn’t sleep, was that I have to tell a story.  That it’s okay if I miss a cue (at least one of secondary importance) at the expense of truly communicating with my ensemble to collaborate a story for an audience.  The german augmented sixth chord before the recaptiulation of the first movement is not nearly as important as the tension of sound, pushing forth to the angered motive breaking out of its shell to release its wrath of frustration.

Lesson one for conducting, know the correlations between the written note and its ability to inspire stories through sound.  Tell a story.

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A great article on music education repertoire

I stumbled, via facebook, across a collection of writings by author Stephen Budiansky on the nature of music education with regards to repertoire.  The collection of articles can be found here.  Money quote thus far,

What they play is always That Piece, as I’ve come to think of it. That Piece is not written by any composer you have ever heard of — not classical, not jazz, not pop, not rock, not blues, not folk, not alternative Czech heavy metal fusion, not nothing. You’ve never heard it on the radio, not even late at night at the bottom of the dial. It in fact exists nowhere in the known music universe — except for the twilight zone of school musical performance.

That Piece is nearly always written by someone who (a) is alive and collecting royalties, and (b) has a master’s degree in music education. It is always preceded by a very wordy description, read out to the audience by way of preparation, explaining that the piece (a) was inspired by a medley of Lithuanian folk songs and Gregorian chants that the composer heard while researching his master’s degree; or (b) depicts the journeys of Lewis and Clark and, if you listen carefully, you will hear the American Indian motif that represents the faithfulness and courage of their young Native American guide Sacagawea and then in the saxophones the sound of the rapids as the raft approaches and then the warning cry from one of the men on the bank and then the raft plunging down the rapids and then the return to calmer waters and then another set of rapids approaching and then. . . , or (c) evokes the soaring ideals we can all aspire to. (Pieces in this last category usually have “eagle” in their titles.) If I’ve heard That Piece once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. Different composers, different titles, same bombastic banality.

Happy readings.

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Nightly thoughts before bed – double bass recitals, and book recommendations from KOS

Today has been productive!  Who knew?  The definite highlight of the day was, oddly enough, a double bass recital.  Truly, I was taken aback at what a truly talented and dedicated bassist can do.  Everything about the recital was great – my friend/colleague picked great repertoire; a transcription of a Vaughn Williams suite for cello and piano, a Prokofiev quintet with oboe, clarinet, 2 violins, and bass, and a concerto by the Paganini of the bass, Giovanni Bottesini.  Until today, Bottesini was not a composer I’d ever heard.  I highly recommend his works; if on a technical level he is the Paganini of the double bass, his style reeks of Verdi.  It’s glorious; the concerto I listened to could easily have passed for a transcription of an opera sequence.  What great music.  In addition, the technical abilities were incredible, the intonation (even in the notes at the end of the fingerboard) was spot on, the phrasing was sensitive, tempi seemed organic….Even the flow of the recital paced well; between stage transitions (bass/piano to quintet and back again), prepared text that covered the length of the stage crew’s work.  It was funny, casual, interesting, and sincere.  I’m really glad I ended up going this afternoon.

On a side note, I do try to keep track of the world outside of music as well, and I came across a great article at DailyKOS.  From the introduction:

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “fantasy novel”?  Does it bring to mind vast kingdoms beneath an autumn sun? Lands where elves, dwarves, and other elder races live side by side with men? Does it make you think of dragons? Are there wizards in the story, or artifacts and weapons imbued with power from some bygone age?

How about a trio of women in a New England town whose attempts at witchcraft summon the devil into their midst? How about a story of multiple-generation family with a loose relationship to time? Or a home perched over an alchemical laboratory where things are endlessly created and destroyed? Chances are names like Updike, Borges, and Márquez don’t pop into your head as fantasy authors.

http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2010/4/3/853869/-S.E.G.O.Thats-Fantastic

This is a must read if you are a fan of literature.  I just recently became terribly fond of Haruki Murakami, who wasn’t listed on the sample list.  I was happy to see, however, Garcia Marquez, as I fell in love him several years ago.  Oddly enough, his name has come up three times (or so) in the past two weeks.  Strange how these random thoughts, ideas, or references, always seem to sequence in groups.

Church gig tomorrow afternoon, then painting easter eggs with some of my closest friends here in Fort Collins.  Life is good.

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Easter Greetings: Festivals, Practicing, and Chamber Music, oh my!

For those of you readers who didn’t see my facebook status update (or I didn’t tell personally), I was accepted on Thursday into the Round Rock International Conducting Workshop!  It’s kind of an interesting story how all of this panned out.

On Tuesday or Wednesday (I believe Tuesday), I received an early e-mail from my conducting teacher Wes Kenney with a forwarded message about this workshop.  Apparently there were two last minute cancellations, so they were reopening up the applications for two more (the workshop wanted exactly 12 particpants, which it stated well before these cancellations).  Luckily, since e-mail is synced to my phone, I got the link almost instantly.  The workshop will take place May 16-22 in Austin, Texas.  The timing couldn’t be any more perfect – I arrive into Texas on May 14th, have a graduation at Angelo State University (my alma mater) on the 15th, and a church gig early morning on the 16th.  So I decided to apply.  I sent an e-mail to the info address with links to my website and youtube page.  They seem to have liked my stuff (the Corigliano was mentioned specifically), and I was told I’d be hearing back in a few days.

Thursday, I got the official e-mail (along with one other individual), and a notice to respond quickly because there was quite a waiting list behind me if I chose not to go.  In a non-competitive way, it’s always a great feeling to know that somebody higher up in your field appreciated what you did enough to give you the opportunity to work with them.  So, as soon as I come up with tuition money, I’ll be gearing up for what should be a wonderful week with Peter Bay (Austin Symphony), Silas Nathaniel Huff (Astoria Symphony and Manhattan School of Music), and the Round Rock Symphony.  The repertoire for the program will include Corilianus Overture (Beethoven), Die Zauberflöte Overture (Mozart), and Dvorak New World Symphony (No. 9, published as No. 5, referred to by Dvořák as no. 8….strange?).

A quick tangent, the numbering of certain symphonies is such a bizarre and complicated situation that it’s irrelevant to give numbers.  This can be really frustrating, particularly for those symphonies without common nicknames.  All right, moving forwad.  One more tangent: I can’t decide if it’s worth copying and pasting certain letters to get the correct diacritic markings or not.  More on this later.

Today’s practicing goals: memorizing a Bach prelude and fugue that I’ve been working on for about three weeks, starting the Schumann a minor piano concerto cadenza (first movement), and do some metronome work with Waldstein.

As far as chamber music goes, I think I was only going to comment on how chamber music as an entity is certainly a comparatively weak area of repertoire knowledge for me.  One of the greatest things about being at Colorado State is the abundance of chamber music recitals that occur here.  My knowledge of the repertoire has grown immensely in just one short year.  For example, my love for Schubert has grown exponentially this year, after being exposed to his chamber music (whereas previously I was familiar with his symphonic writings and lieder primarily).  The Bb Major Trio for violin, cello, and piano?  Heaven.  I hear Brahms in a slightly different light after being exposed to new works.  And so on.  I think chamber music repertory is an absolute must for any budding conductor, or musician for that matter.  As a conductor, it’s extremely noteworthy to see now chamber musicians utilize nonverbal communication without a gesture based system.  This can certainly be transferred over into the conducting idiom, offering yet another tool in our arsenal of nonverbal communications alongside with gesture-based phrasing and articulation.  Plus, it offers such a great alternative window of perspective of a composer in a more intimate setting.

All right, Happy Easter, Passover, or whatever suits you, everyone.  I’m off to practice.

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