Sunday, January 17, 2010

The People United !

Just 2 days ago, I learned the last of the 36 variations in Frederic Rzewski's astounding piece: The People United will Never be Defeated. I've been waiting to learn this piece since 1992 after having heard my teacher, Steve Drury play them in Jordan Hall in Boston. Now the chance has come, a few recession-induced (maybe?) holes in my schedule allowing for some intense Socialist-Musical-Realism-practicing/indoctrinating-the-neighbors-to-Marxist-ideology sessions. What a thrill! The piece is a gift to pianists. It still radiates the urgency of a historical moment nearly 30 years past and stands on its own feet as an extraordinary piece of music. I'll play the piece for the first time on March 25th at the Berlin Festival MaerzMusik. The concert will take place in the upstairs atrium of Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie, Potsdamer Platz Berlin. I just wrote a program text for the concert, which also features an excerpt from Alvin Curran's wonderful epic cycle Inner Cities.

The People United !
By Heather O’Donnell

Y ahora el pueblo
que se alza en la lucha
con voz de gigante

gritando: ¡adelante!
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido…

(And now the people,
who are rising in struggle
with the voice of a giant
cry out: Forward!
The people united will never be defeated…)

On September 11th 1973, the democratically-elected Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet with the backing of the CIA ushering in a 17-year long military dictatorship. The preceding June, Chilean composer Sergio Ortega had written a song for Allende’s Popular Unity government that would in the course of this tumultuous Autumn become the resistance anthem against Pinochet’s oppressive regime, and later an internationally known revolutionary hymn sung (with local alterations) throughout demonstrations in Portugal, Iran, the GDR, and the Philippines.
Frederic Rzewski, a close friend of Ortega’s, chose this
anthem as the theme for his towering set of 36 Variations commissioned by the pianist Ursula Oppens for the American Bicentennial celebrations at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in 1976, perhaps with the intention of using this self-congratulatory forum to voice an implicit criticism of American interventionist foreign policy. He states: "I wanted to write a piece that she could play for an audience of classical-music lovers who perhaps knew nothing at all of what was happening in Latin America. By virtue of listening to my piece for an hour, they might somehow get interested in the subject. I really was trying to reach the audience by using a language they would not find alienating." The daunting task of transmitting an urgent political message through a textless piano work was masterfully met in Rzewski’s Variations with a stylistically diverse though iron-clad formal coherency.

Rzewski was not unfamiliar with the attemp
t of conveying political or social messages through musical means. Marxist, socialist and anarchist themes were present in several of his pieces preceding The People United as well as in his writings and lectures including the so-called "Parma Manifesto" delivered in March 1968 in which he stated : "To create means to be here and now: to be responsible to reality on the high-wire of the present. To be responsible means to be able to communicate the presence of danger to others. " Finding the tools necessary for achieving an effective means of communication has become a lifelong occupation for Rzewski. His music resides effortlessly in an astounding stylistic plurality. The facility Rzewski displays with diverse musical styles undoubtedly comes from his experience as a performing musician. He is one of the few pianist-composers of the 20th/21st century, and in this regard can take his place as a modern-day Mozart, Liszt or Rachmaninoff with his phenomenal pianistic gifts and inspired improvisations. In a conversation with the composer Walter Zimmermann, Rzewski addressed the issue of ‘musical realism’ : "one condition for realism in music [is] a conscious employment of techniques which are designed to establish communication, rather than alienate an audience That does not necessarily mean that one must be confined to familiar languages. It doesn't necessarily mean an exclusion of what's called avant-guard style, by any means. " Recalling Charles Ives’s description of Emerson ("Emerson wrings the neck of any law that would become exclusive and arrogant"), stylistic homogeneity for Rzewski is not an element in music to be praised or valued, and stylistic diversity is an imperative for a composer who wants to communicate with his audience. That Rzewski can maintain this viewpoint without slipping into trite musical mimicry is an indication of his level of deep identification with a wide range of musical styles. Similar to Bertold Brecht’s Gestus technique, the transmission of an idea is enabled by readily-communicable musical gestures.

This stylistic plurality is coupled with a rock-solid and easily discernable formal organization. In the tradition of Variations like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (which The People United was intended as a companion piece for), the theme is easily recalled, malleable and harmonically predictable. Then follows 36 Variations on the theme (a more easily subdividable number t
han Bach’s 30 or especially Beethoven’s 33), organized into six groups of six. Rzewski used a formal organization borrowed from his own piece for improvising musicians, Second Set. In this piece, certain musical parameters are suggested which the improvising musicians react off of in stages, for example, the first stage contains isolated timeless pitches, the second contains repetition, pulse and rhythm, and so forth. Rzewski’s employment of this improvisatory schema for his Variations is as follows:
Each set of six Variations has a unifying characteristic that groups the individual Variations into larger components. Every sixth Variation summarizes the preceding five. The sixth set of Variations are in turn summarizations of previous material in the piece; for example Variation 31 is a summary of the 1st, 7th, 13th, 19th, 25th and 31st Variations. The form is strictly adhered to, aside from a cadenza section during the 27th variation in which fantasy and freedom take precedence. The piece begins to enter a phase of compulsive reiteration and fragmentation in the 6th set, perhaps calling to mind political slogans that have lost their initial strength through popular dissemination and repetition. As the piece enters the 36th variation, only fragmentary memories of every Variation of the entire piece remain. The momentum implodes under its own weight and comes to a grinding halt. The theme returns, and the original message of the piece rises from the ashes, gaining in strength and conviction.

Alvin Curran’s piece which precedes Rzewski’s
The People United is a short excerpt from his 5 hour-long epic piano cycle Inner Cities. Curran, whose texts almost match the poetic sensibilities of his music writes : "Inner Cities are where you go to get debriefed, to dance a tarantella with Gurdjieff, to see Italo Calvino greet Giodorno Bruno in Campo Dei Fiori…to be 5 years old in Central Falls, sitting next to my father in the trombone section at the Sunday afternoon Vaudeville show. " Inner Cities 11 is dedicated to his friend and co-conspirator in the acoustic/electronic improvisational collective Musica Electronica Viva, Frederic Rzewski. "Inner Cities 11 is the simplest of simplest musics…a blues with a one note melody, nothing more, nothing less. This, called the Aglio Olio Peperoncino Blues, is dedicated to my dear friend and colleague Frederic Rzewski, who in a recent email suggested that these three humble foods were all one need."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Three Cheers for Charlie!

Six days from now my Ives-Cd will be released on Mode Records. Ives has been a fascination-bordering-on-obsession for much of my adult life, from the cataclysmic first hearing of the Concord Sonata at age 18 until now. I'm happy and proud to present this new CD.

An excerpt from the liner notes:

Responses to Ives, by Heather O'Donnell

The project "Responses to Ives" was conceived in 2003 as a way to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Charles Ives's death (May 19, 2004)

The project had humble origins. I approached a handful of composers known to have strong affinities for Ives and asked them to write a "musical reflection" on the presence of Charles Ives in their lives and work. Impressed by the enthusiastic responses from these composers and encouraged by the powerful sense of identification they felt with Ives (musically and personally), I invited more composers to participate- the project grew to proportions more worthy of the composer of grand projects like the Universe Symphony or The Celestial Country, and finally premiered at the MaerzMusik Festival in Berlin in 2004 in the midst of a twelve hour extravaganza of Ives and Ives-inspired music. In the months following repeat performances took place in South Africa, China, the Czech Republic, Germany, and the US.

The issuing of the CD in the summer of 2009 presents an opportunity to speculate on the lingering presence of Charles Ives in contemporary life and culture. Ives would certainly have experienced fascination and dismay, hope and concern by our times. Perhaps the son of an old Yankee abolitionist family would have been deeply moved by the election of our first African-American president. He would have certainly had much to say about contemporary issues such as the endangering of our natural environment, globalism, the erosion of basic constitutional principles, a non-regulated free market, military ostentatiousness and preemptive doctrines, as well as irresponsibility and rampant greed in business culture. He may have been fascinated by the Information Age with its democratizing implications and educational potentials, and would have certainly had at least one remedy for his involuntary artistic isolation in having a MySpace page.

The task of trying to sum up a soul as magnificently and maddeningly varied, conflicted, and all-encompassing as Charles Ives can be daunting and often leads to painfully shallow and incomplete caricatures of the man and his outward eccentricities. Enough attention has been allocated to the image of a Yankee crank with a spiteful tongue and explosive temperament, this writer prefers to focus more on the mystical pragmatist in Ives, the enormously successful insurance executive who cared to spend his free hours in the deepest searchings and strivings for a universal musical language that could serve as an awakening agent for humanity on the cusp of realizing its transcendental potential.

Charles Ives, a man who embodied the Emersonian call to self-reliance, found his voice in personal and artistic seclusion, maintained his enthusiasm for music by never subjecting it to earning his keep. Instead of scraping together a meagre subsistence as a music teacher, free-lance composer, or full-time church organist, Ives made a comfortable living in life insurance. This allowed him to devote himself to composition on weekends or holidays, free to pursue his musical imagination without needing to worry about existential issues or public taste. A deeply spiritual person capable of discerning divine elements in humble forms, Ives was divided between a spirit of generosity in supporting and encouraging fellow composers and a penchant for acidic and irascible denunciations of composers who he felt threatened by. He was a beautifully and brazenly flawed man who had little concern for reaching the sterile perfection of classical form, but instead strove with great zeal and untiring investment towards the dizzyingly ambitious aim of reflecting through music a totality of human experience, divine and profane. Ives lived Transcendentalist ideals of spiritual awareness , intellectual independence and idealism. His political orientations were progressive, optimistic about human nature and the innate goodness of the majority, he was an active and exemplary citizen, sacrificing his time and health for aiding the war effort in 1918. At the same time, he maintained a watchful and critical eye on the Wilson administration. His music was also progressive, ever-expanding the tonal system within an aesthetic universe in which dissonance was an indication of strength and honesty, reflecting the motley multifariousness of life’s experiences. He effortlessly combined wildly divergent musical expressions into a unified whole, eradicating hierarchical notions of "high" as opposed to "common" music. He elevated the local to the universal, and brought universal themes back to his Yankee homestead. He began an experimentalist tradition which continues on to today by playfully challenging musical dogma in the areas of tonality, rhythm and form. He adhered to a strong and reliable inner compass of decency and virtue, and lived and worked uncompromisingly towards his ideals.

This disc is intended to be a celebration of Charles Ives, through his own works as well as reflected in the work of contemporary composers who admire and love him.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Elephant on the Table (or Piano)

I've been procrastinating writing this blog for some time now. I knew I wanted my next blog to be on this certain topic, but it's a big one, and a hard one. And pianists don't wear their injuries on their sleeves with any small degree of grace, or as a badge of honor. Otherwise we might know more about the physiological reasons behind Horowitz and Gould's extended breaks from concertizing, and Fleischer may have not responded to the early onset of focal dystonia by "practicing harder and longer".

My hand problems have been gloriously multifarious, spanning 20 years, and encompassing a plethora of colorful diagnoses; carpal tunnel, tendonitis, overuse syndrome, neck injuries resulting from a falling-out-of-bed incident as a 5 year-old, weak eyesight resulting in ocular muscle-strain, muscular dystrophy, and most titillating of all, focal dystonia, the big Hog Daddy of musicians' injuries, one that mostly leads to complete abandonment of all musical pursuits. Doctors I worked with often expressed frustration with their inability to pinpoint and treat the problem, as I'd often come back week to week with rotating pains between various parts of my right and left arms and hands. When my right hand improved, my left hand started acting up, as if demanding equal rights for pain and discomfort. More than one doctor gently suggested seeking the aid of a psychoanalyst specialized in extreme cases of psychosomatic delusion. At the worst point, the structure (bridge) of my hands had collapsed, the whole right side of my body sagged lower than the left, and my fourth finger in my left hand shook uncontrollably whenever I put any weight on it. An unhappy conundrum.

And then there were the treatments... soaking my hands in warm wax (comfy! but completely ineffective), a daily hanging from a neck-stretcher (terribly alarming for unsuspecting friends and family members), homeopathy, osteopathy, chiropracty, neurology, hydrotherapy, massage, manual therapy, Feldenkrais, Alexander, muscle training, Yoga, fish-oil supplements, meditation, plain old Aspirin, and exercise (including the infamous episode where a doctor suggested jogging for improving overall condition, advice I followed religiously until I tripped and fell onto my hands the day before a concert and was forced to try to play the Goldberg Variations with what looked like a blessed dose of Stigmata. The audience gasped audibly during the many hand-crossings. This concert was not my finest moment at the piano.)

The problems lingered, sometimes flaring up to levels which paralyzed my playing for some time, but mostly staying at a bearable though immensely frustrating level. Pain has been an almost daily companion in practice and performance for much of the past 20 years. Rather simple elements in piano technique have been extremely difficult to grasp. I had the feeling of having to practice much more than my colleagues in order to maintain a professional level, this over-practicing in turn was a classic Catch-22 which only aggravated problems. There was an uncomfortable feeling of not being in control of my hands, not sensing their intricacy, and "making-do" with pianistic tools that seemed (and were) increasingly inadequate for the tasks they were asked to do.

The explanation for these problems came almost one year ago after a hospitalization for extremely low blood levels (something which also was connected to the health problems). The cause of this suffering is a strange but not uncommon one, though it was a condition totally unknown to me before the diagnosis. I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, an extreme gluten-intolerance that forces the body to react to the confrontation of gluten as a low-level poison, constantly building dangerous levels of antibodies that then turn on the body and attack it in various ways (internal organs, nerve-endings, muscles). The cure is simple, no more bread. Or cookies. Or cake, pasta, soy sauce, beer, chips, crackers, pizza, and most kinds of junk foods. Finding out the cause of these problems is at once an enormous relief but also produces a sinking feeling of having lost a lot of time dealing with the physical, psychological, and emotional effects of not knowing why things were not functioning well.

The pianistic cure is not simple. Deeply ingrained habits that were developed with a faulty physical system in order to find solutions to pianistic challenges must be methodically and pain-stakingly retrained. One example- I always relied on a quick thrust from the lower arms to produce loud chords, which was the only solution I could find at the time though it produced a brittle and ugly sound. Having used this 'solution' countless times over the past decade or so, it takes a lot of time and patience to introduce new ways of confronting a chord. I had to practice in a way that any Zen master would be proud of. Months and months of work went into single soft tones, using each tone as an opportunity to trace the connection between the finger and the back, with all of the various points in between. When I felt confident that I could play the single tones without immediately resorting to old habits, I could move onto 2-note chords, 3-note chords, etc. I had the great fortune to work with a pianist in Berlin with a deep knowledge of anatomy, neurology, and various pianistic ailments ( I'd be happy to share details with anyone... write me!) who encouraged me to find these kinds of connections. There was a feeling of having great gaping holes in my sensory perception that I had to fill through the strength of imagination (and images provided by this teacher) until the brain finally could confront, understand, and recognize these sensory "black holes". Practicing had to become non-musical for a long period of time, preoccupation with the physical components of piano playing very much took the foreground . Playing though pieces for enjoyment wasn't an option, as the hands would respond to this wild abandonment through several days of 'sulking' with the all-too familiar aches and pains. This kind of hyper-aware practicing is not always enjoyable, especially because it's often accompanied with uncomfortable sensations of pain, but it did introduce an element for me in being deeply tuned into the messages sent from within. I have gained through this experience a new humility in dealing with my body. I listen to it. I respect its signals. I don't trespass. I suppose this kind of self-awareness is something common to people who practice meditation. I'm emerging from this experience with a great sense of awe in the subtlety, fineness, and beauty of our capabilities as healthy human beings.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Usefulness of Art (in America)

"Words may show a man's wit but actions his meaning." (Benjamin Franklin)

Having had over one year to ponder the request, John McCain finally issued a statement outlining his platform on Arts in America (at a whopping four sentences long). By contrast, Barack Obama issued a much more comprehensive platform about one year ago, outlining 8 areas he would address as president.

The results...

McCain's arts statement:
"John McCain believes that arts education can play a vital role fostering creativity and expression. He is a strong believer in empowering local school districts to establish priorities based on the needs of local schools and school districts. Schools receiving federal funds for education must be held accountable for providing a quality education in basic subjects critical to ensuring students are prepared to compete and succeed in the global economy. Where these local priorities allow, he believes investing in arts education can play a role in nurturing the creativity of expression so vital to the health of our cultural life and providing a means of creative expression for young people."

Obama platform:

"Reinvest in Arts Education: To remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great. To do so, we must nourish our children's creative skills. In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education. Unfortunately, many school districts are cutting instructional time for art and music education. Barack Obama believes that the arts should
be a central part of effective teaching and learning. The Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts recently said "The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society." To support greater arts education, Obama will: (read more)

John McCain's statement shows such a disregard for the arts as an entity worthy of governmental support, that it's futile to be shocked by it, or even react to it. It doesn't address arts funding, only a meager argument for the continuation of (state-level) arts education funding in schools. Obama's statement is something one can react to...

What concerns me most about Obama's statement is a need to talk about art in any other context than what it actual is, namely the act of painting pictures, organizing sounds, taking photographs, aestheticizing movements of the body, or writing words (something Obama deeply understands, as Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker said, "he's a lawyer by profession, but a writer by calling").

Many subjects are taboo in contemporary political discourse, one rarely hears either candidate mentioning the poor, Progressives are as taboo a subject in this election as transvestites, cheese-eaters, or former members of the Black Panthers, as they are all clumped into a conglomerate of the effete coastal liberals. Art as an entity unto itself is not a discussion in American politics. Only when it can be translated into economic terms:

According to the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, the organization that first requested the policy statements from both candidates, artists and art-related nonprofits generate about $166.2 billion in revenue per year and $12.6 billion in annual taxes. That makes those employed or interested in the creative economy a possibly powerful voting bloc with which which to reckon.

or into offering a supplement to childrens' education:

To remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great. To do so, we must nourish our children's creative skills. In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education. (Obama Platform)

can artistic activity be politically worthy of discussion.

Historically speaking, Americans are a pragmatic people with a low level of tolerance for artistic fancies, for art that serves no definable purpose other than enlivening the recipient. Art in America has most often been associated with the emasculated and over-refined, a by-product of rotted-out and disintegrating European civilization. Art needs to be useful to be justifiable.
"Art is man's expression of his joy in labor". (Henry Kissinger). "To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts." (Henry David Thoreau)

A question among many of my artist friends and colleagues is whether art actually needs be discussed in a political context, or supported by governmental agencies. I say: "yes. Yes. YES. It does." Artists in America spend too much of their time justifying their very existence. That often takes the wind out of the sail for spending time on strengthening and deepening their messages, views, visions and techniques. I've lived long enough in a society that has a long history of and commitment to public funding for the arts (on a national level- Germany, as well as local- Berlin) , and think this model of state sponsorship of the arts, when not abused, is necessary in keeping arts on the radar-system of contemporary culture, and helping artists earn a societal respect and recognition for their work in relation to the energy, thought, reflection and sacrifice they put into it.

It comes back to a terribly unrelenting thought I inevitably encounter whenever I step foot in the US, namely "Am I doing something with my life that is contributing to society?" This thought mysteriously vanishes when I get back to Berlin. There are certain professions that I would count as essential to the livelihood of society- farmers, doctors, trash collectors, mid-wives, and undertakers among others. As for the rest of us, we belong to a not-absolutely-essential-to-the-functioning-of-society collective. Who's to say that a person who thrills us by a gripping use of the human body in urgently telling a story has less societal worth than a guy who sells ads for millions of dollars subliminally convincing people to buy stuff they don't actually need?

To end with, two fun quotes by the lovable but sometimes exasperating curmudgeon, Mark Twain, on Art:

Twain described JMW Turner's Slavers Throwing Overboard as a "a tortoiseshell cat having a fit in a plate of tomatoes."

"It is a gratification to me to know that I am ignorant of art, and ignorant also of surgery. Because people who understand art find nothing in pictures but blemishes, and surgeons and anatomists see no beautiful women in all their lives, but only a ghastly stack of bones with Latin names to them, and a network of nerves and muscles and tissues."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Honest Sounds

A good definition of practicing would be simply «looking for Honest Sounds».

When the finger meets the key in the right way, one that corresponds exactly to the desired mental image of the sound, an unmistakable certainty arises that this sound is the one that justifies the intention. This might only happen only after years of effort (as in my case of the first chords in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau), perpetually admitting that the tones aren’t at this particular point really speaking, but always trying to get closer to their essence - an immensely frustrating and hair-splitting process. I’ve been enjoying a small breakthrough in being able to realize a certain intention that I’ve been looking for for a long time. This kind of breakthrough always brings with it a certain euphoria and is a wonderful vindication of all of the baffling effort that goes into the seemingly autistic attempt at spending a lifetime getting the keys to go down in just the right way.

A book that is almost always present on my horizon in regard to piano playing is «Zen in the Art of Archery». A lot of pianists have found meaning in this book, most notably Claudio Arrau, the teacher of my teacher Stephen Drury, who emphatically recommended the book. The book is concerned with the attempt of the German author, Eugene Herrigel, to learn about Zen through the practice of Archery. One part of the book I remember vividly is a struggle with the concept of not releasing the bow in order that the arrow fly off assuredly in the right direction, but instead being released by the bow at the ideal moment. The author struggled with this concept for months, maybe years, getting to a point of frustration where he concluded that he must have an imperfect concept of what his instructor meant by release, and settling for a comfortable solution of a certain wrist movement that might correspond to the instructor’s cryptic wishes, morphing the seemingly mystical concept into mere technique. He is satisfied by his clever solution, presenting it back to the instructor who watches in silence and then goes to sit on the ground with his back to the student, indicating that he was fundamentally disappointed and that the student should not try to trick him, and that he should promptly leave and not continue with his studies.

The first chords of the Debussy require a «hammerless» piano, an impossibility ; it’s an imperative that the sound comes from keys that are not struck, but released. It’s this concept that’s so infuriating not only for me, but also many of my colleagues who use this piece as an entry-point into a higher plane of pianistic sound. Any given technique (low wrist, flat fingers, for example) doesn’t go far enough into realizing what’s required for this kind of sound. I first started working on this while living in Paris, I was renting a practice room in a cavernous basement of a 16th-century building on the left-bank, five minutes from Notre Dame. The piano there was a Pleyel, a French manufacturer of which Debussy owned an upright (it was given as a gift by the company) but which Debussy never had a real affinity for (he loved the German brand Blüthner). This environment was sufficiently inspiring to get me started on a seven year on-and-off quest that is by no means exhausted in finding the «hammerless piano», it's a kind of mystical concept that I believe has a technical - so physical - solution, but the solution has to be a good one, not cheap-n-easy.

I’m intrigued by a level of deep involvement into a certain inquiry, where a seemingly mystical concept meets a technical or physical realization. This is an elusive search, one is just as often on haplessly meandering false paths as on a path with a potential for authentic meaning. The flutist Marcel Moyse used to emphatically urge Peter Serkin (another of my teachers) to play his leading tones in a Mozart Sonata sharper (meaning, higher), something that is very possible on the flute, but absurdly impossible on the piano, unless one is very adept at whipping out a tuning wrench at the exact right moment. Moyse was asking for something that required more than a good intention, he was asking for a suspension of disbelief. This level of musicianship is where it gets interesting.

Working for « honest sounds » means constantly being present in the fullest sense, having the idea, and trying to meet it with the fingers, on a micro and macro level, in any given piece. It’s treating physically impossible intentions (hammerless piano, sharper leading-tone) as real potentials that can be met through honest and persistent searching.


In a fractuous and specialized world, having a foot in several musical orientations is a complicated game. I spend my days somewhere between classical and contemporary music.(that orientation being further splintered by a fondness for many divergent streams of contemporary music) I’ve started adding free-improvisation to this mix and even imagined for a short while that I could add jazz as well, until I had to admit to myself that I’m indelibly imprinted by my early pianistic training and will never lose the «accent» of a «BachMozartBeethovenSchubertSchumannChopinLiszt- BrahmsDebussy-centric» education.
I’ve recently been disturbed by how little cross-fertilization there is between my colleagues who play standard repertoire and those who play new music, not to mention the jazzers I know who aren’t into the new music people or the classical people. Several decades ago, the Grateful Dead was listening to Stockhausen, Miles Davis (through Teo Macero) was into Varese, Yoko Ono was into Cage, Bill Evans was into Debussy, Ligeti was into African drumming, Eric Dolphy into Jimi Hendrix, Horowitz was into Art Tatum and invited him to dinner (although legend has it that his butler opened the door, saw an unkempt black man and closed it immediately).
People are saying that the Internet culture (through MySpace, Itunes, and YouTube) is eradicating stylistic boundaries between different types of music. This may be true in a passively receptive arena, in which listeners are starting to be more open to experiencing a wider range of music, but I’m not convinced that it’s making a big difference in musicians’ openness to exploring and participating in various streams of music. The exceptions to this are usually heavily marketed « cross-over » projects, in which a certain famous opera singer warbles their way through the American Songbook, or a certain pop-hunk gives Italian arias a go.
« Cross-over » projects are usually a pure marketing endeavour, hoping to appeal to admirers of two different stylistic genres, thereby doubling the income for the venture. Usually, the outcome is painfully lesser than the sum of its parts, as its aim is not to find a connection point between the genres that would expand the concept and meaning of each part, but to appeal equally to listeners who’s allegiance is firmly entrenched in a given direction, hoping that these listeners will, through an ephemeral attempt at adventurousness, be swayed into purchasing something that will most certainly disappoint them in their expectations. It’s usually an insult to the kind of intellectual and musical curiosity that led people like Miles Davis to embrace Woodstock culture, Menuhin to be enriched by Ravi Shankar, the oud player Ravi Abou Khalil to mesh with jazz music, and the perennial cross-over guru Charles Ives to ride a wave of perfect symbiosis between the most divergent musical elements ; ragtime, folk, classical, band, church, orchestral, and purely cacophonous.

I’m looking for contemporary Ivesian figures who in the post-racial, post-femisist, post-modern era aren’t encumbered by old musical ghettos, but yet seek out a meaningful and earnestly-intentioned approach to artistic osmosis.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Henry David and Sarah

Here's a lovely article from Paul Theroux about what Thoreau thought about moose hunting.

and... from The Maine Woods, Henry David Thoreau

We soon began to meet with traces of bears and moose, and those of rabbits were everywhere visible. The tracks of moose, more or less recent, to speak literally, covered every square rod on the sides of the mountain; and these animals are probably more numerous there now than ever before, being driven into this wilderness, from all sides, by the settlements. The track of a full-grown moose is like that of a cow, or larger, and of the young, like that of a calf. Sometimes we found ourselves travelling in faint paths, which they had made, like cow-paths in the woods, only far more indistinct, being rather openings, affording imperfect vistas through the dense underwood, than trodden paths; and everywhere the twigs had been browsed by them, clipt as smoothly as if by a knife. The bark of trees was stript up by them to the height of eight or nine feet, in long, narrow strips, an inch wide, still showing the distinct marks of their teeth. We expected nothing less than to meet a herd of them every moment, and our Nimrod held his shooting-iron in readiness; but we did not go out of our way to look for them, and, though numerous, they are so wary that the unskilful hunter might range the forest a long time before he could get sight of one. They are sometimes dangerous to encounter, and will not turn out for the hunter, but furiously rush upon him and trample him to death, unless he is lucky enough to avoid them by dodging round a tree. The largest are nearly as large as a horse, and weigh sometimes one thousand pounds; and it is said that they can step over a five-feet gate in their ordinary walk. They are described as exceedingly awkward-looking animals, with their long legs and short bodies, making a ludicrous figure when in full run, but making great headway nevertheless. It seemed a mystery to us how they could thread these woods, which it required all our suppleness to accomplish, — climbing, stooping, and winding, alternately. They are said to drop their long and branching horns, which usually spread five or six feet, on their backs, and make their way easily by the weight of their bodies.