Thursday, January 28, 2010

Orchestra Summit

If I may draw your attention to the flurry of blogging activity from our fair University, which is hosting an American Orchestras Summit this week.

I attended a bunch of the panels today, and there are a number of ideas bouncing around out there.

Of greatest impact for me was Barbara Haws of the NYPhil Archive about the need for dialogue between music and the other arts. I could not agree more. I can't count the number of times I've been deferred to simply because I'm supposedly an expert in this. When did this start, this silencing of people from expressing opinions, observations? Would more teaching of terminology help? Theory? How about more teaching of music production angles too? I think this would help. And for those of us on this side of the gap, we need to engage with the other arts. My colleague Nate Platte designed a film music class with plenty of modeling and readings from film studies- just the way it should be. My dissertation is delving into the visual arts through collage, and I'm still meeting with resistance on occasion, or at least pressure to keep that talk down. It's a musicology dissertation first and foremost, and perhaps with job markets in mind spending time discussing visual arts at length would be unwise, but shouldn't a scholar want to open it up more easily for other fields? Or perhaps this is a major difference between dissertation and book.

A second idea was the call by Evan Chambers and Ken Kiesler to get beyond the capitalist system of judging our success, something I''ve maddeningly been ambivalent about embracing. It's obviously full of merit, but also just as obviously full of impracticality. But what would this mean? Obviously money will continue to be part of the equation, but how else can we tangibly and meaningfully measure success (and wouldn't money eventually enter back in)? I can think of ways (artistic excellence, new collaborations, new audiences) but all of these things have been on the table for some time, and it seems to me that in order for post-capitalist ideas, what can be offered besides money? Advocacy perhaps, but that usually diverts back to money. And the various nonmonetary thrills gained, the surge of energy or memories, the community aspects, are already there at least for me.

Finally, I liked Michael Jensen's discussion of the perils of technology. There's undeniably something more powerful about live performance. But is there a way to harness this more fully? Is there, for example, a way to make the event of attending these just as much about attending as the music (akin to a dance, a sporting event, or something?) I like attending things with less good music if the environment is welcoming and fun, if there's another draw (my folk dancing is like this- even when the band is subpar, the crowd can make up for it). And if the music is top-notch, it's just an added layer. A while back, Lawrence Kramer had an editorial about making concert going more like museum going, but that parallel is unfortunately, I think, too fraught with disjunctures. Still, I like the idea of the symphony as a flexible space, something that allows multiple levels of artistic encounters. A second paradigm it seems worth drawing from is the live show of a popular band. Isn't classical music sort of like loving a band, knowing it in enough depth to rhapsodize about one recording over another (akin to alternate takes for a band or cover versions), wanting to see it live because you love it and know the experience will be different. Could there not be something more like music festivals, encores, surprises in the programs, audience participation, audience interaction? Maybe the space needs to open up more for these possibilities. I think part of what I love about the University of Michigan's collage concerts is that it starts to approximate some of these (not all).

And finally (I know, it's a long post and it's late and I'm teaching in the morning), there's no single model that has to be fully and exclusively adopted. I think sacrifice is key here- we have to be willing to lose somethings we love to gain other things. I am happy to see programming I don't like on a program for diversity sake. I don't need every concert I attend to be the best in terms of artistic quality, and as much as I love new music, I don't need it 24/7. And others don't really just need Beethoven. And still others can admit the populist stuff to the table too, right? An orchestra isn't your personal object, and yet the people who I think love it, maybe more than others, treat it like that. There's a certain inflexibility that creeps into the thinking- programming I want, formats I want, quiet and polite. But there's no reason that it has to either all get tossed out or perfectly preserved. It's nor yourchestra, its ourchestra.

And with that poorly made pun, I'm out.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pierre, Part I

Just back from a lovely, spur-of-the-moment weekend in Chicago to hear Pierre Boulez and the CSO rock their way through The Firebird, a Boulez piece Livre pour cordes, and Bartok's Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion. The Boulez, possibly the first I've heard live, was very engaging, well textured, little fragmentary ideas sort of eliding and coalescing into more solid bits. The Bartok is a very cool piece, it's not really improved by being a concerto over the sonata, but if that's what it takes to get it played, so be it. Very exacting, lively, and I love the last movement with its jaunty little melodies, and then the sweetest ending imaginable, a little throwaway cadence and the drums fading perfectly into nothingness. Finally, the Firebird gets me everytime in the final movement, but what really came out so well in this performance was the clarity of texture, especially in the phenomenal wind playing. There's such energy and vivacity to the score, but then moments of simplicity really come across as almost naive. My favorite moment may be the games of the princesses- everything bubbles, then the music is cut short, a bit savagely here, then out of this limbo comes that gorgeous oboe solo, the tension just evaporates as quickly as it set in. Boulez isn't one for sentimentality, everything happens in tempo, but that actually works to great effect here- it's what is played rather than how it's played that communicates everything, or at least a delicate balance between the two.

Also on the new music front, I went to the composer's forum. SOme very nice stuff, including a Michael Nymany quartet that got a lot of richness out of the ensemble, and a marvelous piano/violin duo. I didn't think much of the first few excerpts, but the final two numbers were amazing. The penultimate featured string glissandos and these wisps of arpeggios fragilely arranged, and the final one a static D major chord over which lines spun out in all directions. Gorgeous.

Bedtime approaches, but soon I'll get around to year in review things, as well as Pierre Parts II and III (CSO is doing Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle here with Ravel and Dalbavie, and then Boulez is giving a talk).

Saturday, January 9, 2010

New year, same place.

I have, as you may have noticed, not posted much. It's partly been in a moderately successful effort to gear myself to writing more of a dissertation, and more recently because I just wanted to step away from the musicology world and enjoy my break. Which I did. I enjoyed the company of family and friends, discovered I can make an omelet that doesn't fall apart (while making jokes about Anubis), can sleep just as little on break as during the school year, and I can recite from memory the entirety of the theme song for The Nanny.

You can all expect more movie reviews, top tens, and other year end bits, but I want to start just broadly. Academically, his has been the first year of really, truly writing a dissertation, a year without structure. It was the last academic class I will likely take- a film historiography class I loved. It was also my one shot class of teaching my own course. These are all big moments, ones I've learned from: I like teaching. I excel at using my own enthusiasm to structure something. I don't quite know where I want to fall in the easy/hard grading spectrum. I still struggle with getting momentum early on in classroom discussions, especially early in the semester. And I also struggle with consistent writing production and self-editing. That's been the biggest issue I've faced in 2009, and will continue to face in 2010. And here's where the standard resolution making comes into conflict for me: I don't really know what I want to resolve, or how.

Dissertationally, I'm still figuring out how to be more effective. Not necessarily either quality or quantity, but just feel more satisfied.

I also need to be doing more other projects, publishing, papers, and yes, blogging. Balance.

I also need to read more pleasure books, practice some piano maybe. I've also considered trying to do some fun, social sightsinging, without performing or perfecting. And of course, I'd like to revisit movies and do more pleasure reading.

But the one resolution I've made is to keep up more with current music. I think NPR's All Songs Considered is a good starting place. Other suggestions?