Friday, June 4, 2010

a thriving culture

Every few days I get an email announcement about another new concert series, or venue, or ensemble. Each new entity has a website, designated directors or players, well-targeted email blasts, and at least some kind of collateral materials. They also seem to have taken a crash course in Post-Classical Marketing, which means a certain kind of imagery (all in black, few smiles = new music, glamorous young things = traditional repertoire), a Facebook page, good use of social networks. And it’s not just in LA that all these things are springing up, though at first I thought it was. LA, after all, doesn’t necessarily have a new music audience, or a single chamber music audience; the people I see when I go to concerts in Santa Monica aren’t the same people I see in Pasadena. Part of it’s geography, obviously, but it also has to do with the differing aesthetics of each group or series, which may be at least partly related to the aesthetics of the city’s music schools.

But again, it’s not just Los Angeles. A cursory glance at just those events that make the New Yorker listings reveals more concerts than one could keep up with, hot young composers starting their own ensembles, musicians taking advantage of various venues and an abundance of talent and energy.* I think some of this can be traced to groups like eighth blackbird and ICE, and venues like (Le) Poisson Rouge – I’d be surprised if behind some of this surge wasn’t the hope of becoming the Next Big Thing. (And why not?)

It’s an echo of what’s happened in pop music over the last ten years: breakdown of dominance and hierarchy (musicians no longer need management or access to big presenters), easy access to technology, new models of promotion and distribution. And I’ll admit that while I keep up with new music – I know a lot of the names and some of the music, anyway – I’ve been utterly daunted by the prospect of trying to keep up with pop. I don’t have the time and inclination to go browsing for days on end, not knowing what I’ll come up with, and besides that, I wouldn’t necessarily know where to look. I rely on friends to direct me. The sheer amount of music is overwhelming, and I can’t get far enough ahead of it to see how or if it’s organized in any way that would make it more approachable. Has this democratization been “good” for pop music? Is it “bad”? (Those in quotes because I know they’re ludicrous shorthand for the real questions)

So here, in the post-classical realm, there are more concerts – of music that interests me – than I can go to, though that’s always been the case. But the same principals of post-corporate pop: the self-marketing, the use of technology, the self-directed image consciousness, the leveling of the playing field – apply to this industry as well. Almost every musician I know – certainly every musician on the upcoming In Frequency concert - is involved in multiple ensembles/concert series, though none of them as a sole means of making a living. Are there any risks? Can the quality be as high as we’d all hope,? Is there such a thing as a saturation point, even in a city this big? Will having constant access to certain music through multiple channels – YouTube, Facebook, websites, Instant Encore, iTunes – increase or decrease demand for the live experience?

My instinct says an open musical culture is a good thing, that mediocrity will weed itself out, that there’s an adequate audience for all of it and what can’t be sustained will fade away – a shockingly free-market stance for such a tax-and-spend bleeding heart arts funding advocate. But while I’m all for regulation of certain industries (hi BP!!), in this industry I’m curious to see how it will all play out, what will survive, what will leave a mark on its city’s culture, what will be a one-time spectacular.**

*this is the part where I want to rant – just a little! – about how many new groups are promising to “reinvent” something, or “break down barriers”, but I think I’ve already done that (see March 9). So consider it said.

**this also raises the question of what new values might go along with this flourishing culture. Will founders strain quite as hard for permanence? Will we judge the success or failure of a project by its longevity, its level of fundraising? What criteria will we use?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Cleveland Chamber Symphony

from a recent article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (written by Donald Rosenberg, the paper's top music critic, whom we might discuss in a future post - he was basically demoted from his spot as the Cleveland Orchestra's reviewer due to his consistently negative comments about music director Franz Welser-Most - can't find the umlaut - or was he??)

oh, the intrigue. Anyway, this is a cool orchestra playing interesting music, and they're in trouble.

Cleveland Chamber Symphony finds 'it's a tough time'

By Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer

April 04, 2010, 12:01AM

Steven Smith.jpgCleveland Chamber Symphony music director Steven Smith: “We’re not gone. It’s a tough time for all of us.”

In movie theaters around the world, audiences watching Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" are hearing waves whoosh and gulls soar as the Cleveland Chamber Symphony performs Robert Ericson's "Pacific Sirens."

Here's one irony: The fictional Shutter Island, home to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital where Leonardo Di Caprio investigates strange doings, is nowhere near the Pacific Ocean. It's supposed to be in Boston Harbor, which opens up to the Atlantic.

Now for a life-size local irony: Try catching the Cleveland Chamber Symphony in the flesh in Northeast Ohio.

The Grammy Award-winning ensemble, which concentrates on works by living composers, is one of numerous orchestras and artists who perform late 20th- and 21st-century music in Scorsese's psychological thriller.

But the Cleveland Chamber Symphony hasn't given a concert since last fall, and it's struggling to stay alive.

"We're not gone," says Steven Smith, the orchestra's music director. "It's a tough time for all of us. We're trying to marshal our forces and come back as strong as ever."

For more than two decades, the professional ensemble was in residence at Cleveland State University, where founding music director Edwin London built an impressive record of world premieres and garnered national awards for programming.

London's retirement and personality clashes at CSU led to the orchestra's departure in 2004 for the Baldwin-Wallace College Conservatory of Music, where it has presented occasional concerts.

A performance scheduled for late February, however, was canceled after funds to pay the orchestra couldn't be found. So the only place to experience the group -- except on a series of compact discs, including a 2007 Grammy-winning Messaien recording -- is a big screen near you.

Although contemporary-music mavens haven't heard a live peep out of the Cleveland Chamber Symphony in months, Smith says he and musicians are working hard to program a new season at Baldwin-Wallace.

The orchestra has applied to Cuyahoga Arts and Culture for a $16,000 grant -- which it must match by June 30 -- to finish a recording project begun three years ago. Smith, the ensemble and soloist Eva Legene recorded Gerald Plain's Concerto for Recorder and Chamber Orchestra in January 2007.

With the CAC grant, they would be able to fill out the disc in June with Monica Houghton's "Osa Sinfonia," which they performed on the same B-W program with the Plain concerto.

"We're not that far away," says Smith of the orchestra's matching portion of the grant. "We're about two-thirds of the way there."

Smith says the orchestra hopes to present several concerts next season at B-W. In addition, it anticipates reviving its Young and Emerging Composer Project, which gives college-age composers the chance to hear their scores played by the ensemble.

Peter Landgren, director of B-W's Conservatory of Music, says the college is committed to hosting the Cleveland Chamber Symphony. B-W supplies no funding, but it prints the programs and provides ushers for the orchestra's rent-free concerts in Gamble Auditorium.

Landgren gives several reasons for B-W to continue welcoming the musicians.

"They bring a level of performance and a segment of repertoire that needs to be on a college campus," he says. "They fill a repertoire niche that no one else fills in the Greater Cleveland area."

And, it turns out, in movie theaters near and far.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

reposting - 30 Things That Won't Save Classical Music

If you labor in the industry end of classical music, as I do and as most of us do in some way or another, you're no doubt familiar with the "save classical music" trope. I'm profoundly irritated by it, though perhaps it has abated somewhat over the last few years. But every new survey that shows a dire "aging" in the classical music audience is a gateway to public handwringing over the state of affairs. Either that, or it's a call for the NEW version of "save classical music", which disguises its belief that the music needs "saving" in a cleverly designed cloak of optimism.

I call this new version

"breaking-down-barriers is the new classical-music-is-dying".

Think about it. How many new ensembles, concert series, venues have launched in the last five years who include in their mission statements a commitment to "breaking down barriers"? In practice, this often means something like "not performed in a concert hall" (concert halls are, presumably, a "barrier"); serving beer (sobriety, or drinking before a concert, also presumably "barriers"); not requiring or requesting silence during the performance (listening to the music presumably...a "barrier"?) And I don't discount any of these possibilities in and of themselves! I've produced concerts in a bar, more than once and very happily. But I'd like to see that become one option among many, ie, if you want to put on a concert, you can rent a hall, or do it in your living room, or in a bar, or a gallery, or WHEREVER - without having to make some grandiose claim about barriers or - worse - salvation. Enough already!

So, rant du jour complete. Here's a link to a very smart and funny list of 30 things that won't save classical music. Enjoy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Boulez on Darmstadt, new music and more!

From the Wall Street Journal:

  • The Wall Street Journal

New York

The windows of Pierre Boulez's hotel suite look down on Central Park, but the view, he regrets, is imperfect. The picture of the wintery green rectangle is marred by the bleak concrete tip of a skyscraper jutting into the southeast corner. The 85-year-old composer and conductor shrugs. "C'est dommage," he says. "It's a shame."

Among musicians and concert-goers there are many who accuse Mr. Boulez of foisting the musical equivalent of gray concrete towers on them by composing and promoting pieces that are unlovable, incomprehensible and, in the words of one recent author, "willfully ugly." A founding member of the Darmstadt School, a group of composers who came of age in the years after World War II, Mr. Boulez helped set the agenda of modernist music, rejecting tonality and classical forms in favor of new styles that employ exquisitely intricate systems of organizing notes and yet sound, to the uninitiated, bewildering.

Past statements about composers being "useless" unless they recognize the need for this new musical language have contributed to a view of Mr. Boulez as imperious and dogmatic, yet his days on the barricades are long past. In conversation, he is thoughtful and courteous; as a conductor he is well-loved by players who revere his infallible sense of time. Now, far from dismissing his critics as ignorant fools, he continues to pour his energy into bridging the distance between audience and composer and transmitting his passion for new music.

Not that his judgment is any less severe when it comes to those contemporary composers who have abandoned not only the language but also the ethos of modernist music, treating historical styles like colors in a box of crayons.

"They say, oh well, everything is discovered now, you just have to make a kind of melting pot of everything. That's not interesting to me," he says. "You have the possibility like [Luciano] Berio did to have a kind of collage that you can take from the visual arts to music. Or you have to transcend context and content, to have the point of view of the 18th century with more mechanical rhythms, for instance. Then you can say that's something very abstract. But if you quote and quote and quote, I don't think it's very exciting."

Nevertheless, Mr. Boulez admits that his generation was uniquely motivated to break with the past. "We wanted everything," he says, gesturing as if sweeping crumbs from a table. "That was the context. Imagine a young German like [Karlheinz] Stockhausen discovering new music after 12 years of Nazi time. Can you imagine? The desire to get out of that! . . . Maybe there are Chinese composers who will do what we did, because they are in a country where everything is set anew."

The same context explains why what started out as a loose group of like-minded composers became a movement that dominated Western art music for half a century—across universities, orchestras and grant-giving bodies. In postwar Germany, the cultural elite had been tainted by Nazism and was replaced by a generation for whom modernism was a moral choice. And with television still in its infancy, a large part of the regional broadcasting budget went to radio, funding orchestra commissions of new music that allowed composers to explore and take risks.

"One has the view now that the School of Darmstadt was trying to impose to the whole world its way of thinking," Mr. Boulez says. "It was not at all like that. It was very free."

In 1966 Mr. Boulez abandoned the annual summer workshops at Darmstadt to conduct the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany—a step, he remembers, nearly as shocking and incomprehensible to his fellow composers as his music was to some audiences. He was then 41 and too old, he felt, to be teaching. His conducting career blossomed, bringing him to lead, among others, the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In Paris, he founded and led the Ensemble InterContemporain, dedicated to the performance of avant-garde music.

Each position provided an opportunity to present, promote and explain new music. That it requires an explanation, he says, has nothing to do with any unreasonable demands it might make on the ear. Unlike the visual arts, contemporary classical music does not benefit from the kind of involuntary repeated encounters that, say, a new building enjoys, and which allow an initially shocking new work to gradually "grow" on the public. Fashion also, Mr. Boulez says, is "permeated by contemporary art, so people get accustomed to it. Music is something else." Since even within music "there is such a difference of levels [between], let's say, jingles and the music of our time, we cannot establish any kind of relationship, even intuitively," with modern classical music without some help or guidance.

Nor does it help that "the concert is open at 8 like a restaurant and is finished at 11 at the latest. And then the cook has gone. You cannot have anything more." A better approach, he feels, is the one taken by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with its Beyond the Score series of concerts, in which the first half is devoted to analyzing a score, followed by the work's performance. Easier access to recordings, he says, would let audiences familiarize themselves with new material. And he feels music needs to be brought to venues outside of the concert hall.

Conducting has also shaped his compositions by bringing him up against the realities—and limits—of performers. Mr. Boulez's compositions of the '50s involved experiments with Total Serialism, an attempt to finely calibrate not only pitch, but duration, dynamic and even the tone color of individual notes. Some, such as his Piano Sonata No. 2, bordered on the unplayable.

"I had a lot of utopias in the beginning," he admits. "And it was good, because you try something and you see, well, if you rehearse that bar for one hour and even then you are not sure that you can perform it consistently, then something is wrong. My experience as a conductor has done quite a lot—not to still this thirst for novelty, but to see how I can really bring this novelty under possible conditions."

Among the most recent developments in new music, it is the use of technology that most interests Mr. Boulez. "You can have intervals that you never had possible with instruments, and also you can have rhythms which you can hear but you cannot do because they are too complex. And that's very intriguing, this margin between perception and making.

"Then there are works where the placement of musicians is not conventional at all and you get out of the stage, and that's very important. You want the sound to go everywhere."

He adds, "The more you grow, the less you are attracted by the sound in front of you and which remains there."

Ms. da Fonseca-Wollheim writes about classical music for the Journal.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The popular notion of new music?

I love this video. It's a remarkable parody not only of a good amount of actual music, but of the new music stage aesthetic/presence we've seen so often. (I especially love the way Carol Burnett turns and walks to the piano).

The Carol Burnett Show was on from 1967-1978, and had a live audience. As I see it, the video can be interpreted two ways, depending on the viewer's exposure to new music. One, it can be very simply silly, a bunch of very serious "artists" who have no idea what they're doing, but are putting everything they have into it nonetheless. Two, it's a spoof of atonal music. But in order to know that, you'd have to have some exposure to the original. (We had a Carter piece on last summer's In Frequency concert, and one of the musicians felt that there was a strong resemblance between it and this...) My question is, would a television studio audience in 2010 react the same way? Would they understand why it was so funny? I'm sure there are no actual statistics, but how many studio audience members in, say, 1972, had been to multiple classical music concerts, enough to hear a range of repertoire? And how many in 2010?

This is not a lament about some mythical by-gone time in which audiences were enormous, new music was appreciated, patron money flowed through the cities, and unicorns frolicked in fields of cotton candy. I'm just wondering what a "lay" viewer sees when he or she sees this.

Now watch it again. It's still hilarious.

Getting Started

Welcome to the In Frequency blog! I hope you'll visit often. We'll be talking about all kinds of new music issues here, posting and commenting on dispatches from the new music world and and examining the new music scene here in LA.

How does new music fit into the concert world? Who's the audience? What's the repertoire, what's its reputation, and are those two related at all? Is it true, as Allan Kozinn recently wrote in the New York Times, that "drums are the new violins"? Can we assess complex new music on first hearing? What are the best ways to reach new audiences, and who are the most likely new audience members - are they classical music people, are they people with a significant interest in other performance genres, are they artists themselves?

I'm Andrea Moore. With violinist Tereza Stanislav, I co-direct the In Frequency concerts. I love the process of programming concerts - among other things, it keeps me current, and also allows me to explore a lot of music from the last 50-60 years that I don't know. I love handing a really gnarly score over to the musicians we work with, knowing that they'll play the hell out of it on concert night. And I love connecting with the small but passionate audience for the more recent repertoire, people who feel, maybe, that as former San Francisco Opera general director Pamela Rosenberg once put it, "Difficult times call for difficult music".

Hope to hear from you here.