Friday, January 14, 2005


I’ve been recently listening to Stephen Albert’s RiverRun Symphony (1983). To the best of my knowledge, the recording that I am listening to with the National Symphony Orchestra with Rostropovich is the only commercially available one.

For me, this symphony always evokes rain, mud, and earth. That the work takes its pastoral cue from Joyce is fitting; the connection is one of imagery and imagination, not of scenes or events.

It is fresh, imaginative, and Romantic all at once, and the Romantic strains in the music are thoroughly contemporary and should never have the “neo-” label added. There is real heart without sentimentality. The language is consistent and personal.

Every moment retains an incredible sense of direction and continuity, every turn captivates. The intense thematic integrity and consistency of tone are livened by dramatic and creative sparks. Similar to the music of Mahler, intimate moments that thoroughly draw in the listener are juxtaposed with large orchestral sweeps.

Albert died suddenly in a car accident in 1992. I understand that at the time of his death, he had been working on a second symphony and had turned fresh corners in his composition. We can only speculate on the imaginative works that would have come. It is one of the worst tragedies in American classical music that we were robbed of this voice in its prime.

It is a strange fate. Albert, if alive today, would probably be considered one of America’s foremost composers. Now, I hope that we can give proper attention to his work. His music in the 80s set the stage for many of the composers who were to come of age in the 90s.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Field Trip

Time for something different. Dear friends, I want to take you on a field trip to the musical zoo. You may want to put down you’re coffee before you check this out!

What the?!? I mean – is it camp, kitsch, bad art, satire, or what?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Same, but not the same, Part II

Works that have come to hold a place in the standard repertory have been filtered by a large group of audiences and performers. The process has been painfully democratic in contrast to the process that ‘selected’ the canon.

Consider that Charles Ives might be the most discussed composer in American musical scholarship. Our discussion of Ives is central to our understanding of American classical music, but his useful experiments and mind-bending ideas were never put forward in a way that became palatable to a larger audience. He’s a bit of a niche composer who appears on a series like the ‘American Mavericks.’ His music does have a place in the SR, but it is nothing like that of Gershwin, for example.

Can we simply say then that Ives is more a part of the canon than the standard repertory? Well we could, but we should be aware that we are taking the whole concept of the canon and turning it on its head when we take a less performed, experimental eccentric and call him a central figure in the canon. Remember, the canon is all about agreed upon greatness. Its problems lie in the fact that it is hierarchical; the critiques of it are post-modern in nature.

This examination begets some interesting questions. What is the relationship between musical scholarship and the canon? Does the focus of historians on Ives elevate him as canonic? How does a composer’s importance to future generations impact upon this discussion?

And importantly, is the idea of a canon still of value? And, in what way? I know that this debate already has a scorched battlefield, but I’d still be interested in your views.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Same, but not the same, Part I

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between two similar but distinctly different categories, standard repertory and canon. I think that there is something very peculiar and interesting in their relationship to one another that often goes unconsidered. At least it wasn’t a topic for discussion in any of the academic environments that I’ve been a part of. I’ll start with the definitions provided in Grove. (The entry for canon is lengthy; this is just the first paragraph.)

Standard Repertory
The term ‘standard repertory’ describes the collection of works commonly found in the programmes of Western-style orchestras, choirs and opera companies (and to a lesser extent ensembles and recital artists), containing selected works of the period roughly from Haydn to Richard Strauss and Debussy.

A term used to describe a list of composers or works assigned value and greatness by consensus. The derivation is ecclesiastical, referring to those biblical books and patristic writings deemed worthy of preservation in that they express the fundamental truths of Christianity. Some connotative values associated with this derivation, notably claims for ethical qualities and a universal status, occasionally cling to the term in its aesthetic applications.

The canon, as a concept, has received intense scrutiny at the hands of musicological examination. In contrast, ‘standard repertory’ while being an ambiguous moving target, hard to trace, hasn’t been as embattled. If you drew circles to represent both, they would be mostly (not entirely) overlapping and the circle that represents canon would be dramatically larger than the one for standard repertory.

The canon, in its problematic existence, is rather fixed with occasional additions here and there. The ‘standard repertory’ is ever changing at the whim of conductors, performers, and audiences and is presently shrinking.

Tomorrow I’ll delve deeper.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Fertile Music

The Weekend Quote:

Truly fertile Music, the only kind that will move us, that we shall truly appreciate, will be a Music conducive to Dream, which banishes all reason and analysis. One must not wish first to understand and then to feel. Art does not tolerate Reason.
-Albert Camus (1913-60)

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Cosmo Copland Eschews Symphonies?

Anyone else just love having Grove Online? I dreamed about this when I was a graduate student, now it has happened. I’ve been surfing through articles on a number of topics and came upon something about a month ago that has stuck with me like a bad cold and I’m ready to purge myself of it. This is from the article on the Symphony by Stephen Walsh:

“…Copland remained the most cosmopolitan, and that is perhaps precisely why he wrote the fewest symphonies. The Third (1944–6) is an imposing work of epic-romantic proportions, but the so-called ‘Short’ Symphony (no.2, 1932–3) is by a long way the more interesting: a rather anti-heroic work that draws attention to small symphonic processes and eschews rhetoric.”

I just loved this little snippet because I found it so completely absurd. Mentioning the Third Symphony but then really telling you about that wonderful, underappreciated masterpiece, The Second. Nice of the author to do that for you, huh? I mean everyone knows the big titan, but listen to the better little gem. However, this is a little like mentioning the Queen Mary II and then talking about a “better built” little sailboat. I’ve heard performances of these works and it isn’t that one is big and the other is small, one rhetorical and the other concise. One is grand and overwhelming, possibly the best symphony ever written by an American and the other is a footnote. I still like the ‘Short’ Symphony even if it is a little too much work for what you get out of it. The Third is even more difficult, but wow! I challenge readers to compare these two works back to back and then tell me that you agree with the Grove article that the Second is “by a long way the more interesting.” Interesting, to me, can also mean big, imposing, and provocative like The Third. In the decade between these two pieces, Copland clearly amassed the tools to write a titanic work that dwarfs its predecessor.

This type of flourish might be effective in describing the symphonies of Stravinsky (Three Movements, in C, and Psalms) because the argument can be made that by self enforced limitation and constraints, Stravinsky made better-crafted works than, say, the early ballets. I’m not sure that I would agree with that, but I wouldn’t protest such an argument very vigorously either. With Copland, such thinking is utter poppycock.

Thinking of Stravinsky, possibly the most cosmopolitan of composers from the past century, who wrote those three ‘kind of’ symphonies, what do we make of the first sentence from the quote. Copland wrote few symphonies because he was cosmopolitan? The choice to write symphonies is only a pejoratively provincial one? Are you getting the sense that Walsh has an ax to grind? The Great American Symphony (GAS), so far, as an archetype, has been big and muscular. To Walsh, I say, “deal with it.”

In other posts, I want to deal with the motives of critics like Walsh. I think there are very specific root causes for the prevalence of this branch of anti-populist music criticism.

Walsh, Stephen, “Symphony,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 6 January 2005),

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Thanksgiving Massacre

The NYTimes has reported on the terrible Thanksgiving Massacre at Interlochen.
(click on the title of this post to link to the NYTimes article)

In a recent post, I suggested that there’s a problem with bringing in the outsider CIO to come in and give the arts community the efficient business model. I regret that Interlochen has made itself a prime example. They brought in Kimpton and he showed the door to the musicians. How did he decide whom to fire?

These firings are personal and not professional. Some of the people who lost their jobs were the finest teachers and leaders that Interlochen had to offer students. Certainly, they fired the most loyal to the camp, the ones who had been giving their summers to Interlochen for decades. Why? Personal vendettas? Either the thought that was put into this was malicious and abominable or it was thoughtless. Either way, it had the spirit of Stalinism.

As a mental exercise, I’ve imagined reframing the situation in an academic setting. What if Kimpton had come to a university and axed the faculty that he thought didn’t like his policies regardless of ability, tenure, rank, or service. Imagine that he didn’t stop until over half of the faculty was gone. Of course, that’s all quite unimaginable because academia has checks and balances to prevent such nonsense. Evidently, Interlochen does not.

I was a student at Tanglewood when Seiji similarly decided to tear the place apart on his way out. The effect wasn’t positive. I wonder if Kimpton knows about that lesson already learned?

As a former member of the faculty, I stand in solidarity with those holding pink slips. Although I haven’t been ‘up north’ for several years, I understand how difficult this will be for you come June.

Mozart in the Jungle

The Living Composer invites readers to visit the site of his friend Blair Tindall. (Click on the title of this post for the link.) From her site, you can link to several of here excellent articles pertaining to issues faced by classical musicians. I'm looking forward to her book Mozart in the Jungle due out soon.

Here’s a thumbnail of her bio:
Journalist and oboist Blair Tindall writes about classical music for the New York Times and has performed, toured and recorded with the New York Philharmonic and many other musical groups. She has taught journalism at Stanford University and oboe at the University of California-Berkeley.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Mastering Inefficiency

I recently read an article by Jared Diamond, author of the thoughtful book Guns, Germs, and Steel, that got my mental wheels spinning. In “How to Become Rich” he presents the question that many in business would love to have an answer to, “Based upon history, what is the best organizational system for a modern business?” (Click on the title of this post to link to the article.) He proceeds to answer the question by arguing for exposure to competition that produces innovation and efficiency. Diamond discusses how the German beer making and the Japanese food processing industries are not as efficient as their American counterparts. He rightfully argues that they are protected from competitive international markets. Germans are protective of their local beers and the Japanese are protective of having extremely fresh foods, and the local laws that govern these industries, reflecting cultural values, drastically reduces their efficiency and prevents future growth, competition, and development.

Here’s the issue that goes nearly untouched that I find fascinating: these inefficient, less competitive forms of production are presently producing far better products than their efficient, highly competitive American counterparts. Furthermore, similar legal protections can provide support to cultural traditions that are of value to society. Even though they face minimal competition, German beer, in my opinion, is superior to mass-produced American counterparts. If nothing else, it is reassuring to go down the hill here in Freiburg and order a beer and know that it comes from the region. People here appreciate that. Likewise, Americans with their efficient and competitive food production systems still don’t have access to foods that are as fresh as those that are provided in Japanese markets. In terms of living in a healthy, soulful society, I posit that we may have a vested interest in not being surrounded by efficiency-oriented systems. Diamond points out that the advance of technologies through history is nearly unstoppable, but I believe that there are questions of value that go unformed in his argument. How do we maintain and protect things we cherish from what amounts to unstoppable progress, efficiency, competition, and development?

What does this have to do with music? For one thing, orchestras, sitting at the pinnacle of classical music, practically define the word ‘inefficient.’ Classical music requires big-time protection and should never be expected to be competitive on the mass market. If we value classical music, which I assume wholeheartedly that we should, and we want it to survive, we shouldn’t try to think of it in modern business terms. For example, the trend of bringing in business CIOs to run arts organizations has had some disastrous effects (a topic for future posts). A quick example would be the classical recording industry that turned to the corporate model of efficiency. The result: they nearly stopped making classical recordings altogether. There is a ratio that orchestras follow that would startle most business people. On average their budgets come from 40% ticket sales and 60% public and private support. Giving concerts often losses money instead of brining in revenue. Try running any other business like that!

Most importantly, our inefficient product is something of real worth. We should cherish it by not trying to frame it as a commodity. If we only extend the metaphors of commerce and business to art and treat it as a commodity, it will be a continual failure by the imposed standards.

Diamond’s article also points out something important that we should note. Namely, where cultural value is affixed, inefficient, traditional systems can flourish. This tells us that the future stability of our art will not rise or decline with our abilities to become more efficient or raise money. Rather, it depends on the way we are valued as an institution. Given the present cultural climate in the US, should we have hope or should we be more concerned?

Stretched Soul

I previously mentioned the importance of tensions to composition and promised to come back to the topic. For now, I want to share this wonderful quote:

It is the stretched soul that makes music, and souls are stretched by the pull of opposites-opposite bents, tastes, yearnings, loyalties. Where there is no polarity-where energies flow smoothly in one direction-there will be much doing but no music.
-Eric Hoffer (1902-83), U.S. philosopher.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

"Forget the Beginning"

I just got off the phone with CP in Chicago. He had a funny comment as we ended our conversation: “don’t worry about the beginning, it’ll be the first thing that listeners forget.” Although, the problems is that you still have to start somewhere.

Beginning a Symphony

The Living Composer presently attempts to begin a symphony to be premiered in October with a wonderful orchestra in California. There is something terribly absurd about a symphony, isn’t there? Take this sort of quip that a person might make: “it isn’t like you’re trying to write a symphony, right?” Well, in this case, I am, and yes, it is daunting. But this suffering at the beginning is nothing new to me whether it is a symphony or a smaller project.

Many colleagues with whom I have discussed this have fewer to no problems with starting works. EC always has a dramatic idea, fitting the music into the drama comes naturally. JB has full sketchbooks and ideas floating around. CP and WB write piece after piece.

For me, it is a struggle to enter into the world that I will explore for months on end. I call it, "finding the window into the piece." And, my past compositions have gone in abundantly different directions from one another so there isn’t a clear path there. Besides, I desire to make every piece a new exploration so looking at past accomplishments would be misguided from my perspective. It is the question, not the answer, which is most important to me. Forming the right question is the greater challenge.

Maybe it is a neurotic tic or maybe it is the over rich variety of possibilities that cause me to stumble out of the gate? For whatever reason, it is a challenge. Usually, once I have a start, the tribulations are diminished. So for now, I sit at the blank page waiting for the drop of blood to form on my forehead then fall to the paper forming perhaps a quarter-note. Then, maybe more drops turning into more notes, and then the decision whether to go with them or search on. That’s how it goes lately.

On the good side? At the least, I know the tensions and themes that my work typically takes. The ideas have to come into play with these tensions or something will be missing. Tensions are important and I’ll write more about them in future posts.

In the process of trying to start the symphony, ideas for other pieces have come along. I have a good start on a sonata for viola and piano that came out of the sketches that I’ve produced. I’ve wanted to write one for KF, and I will enjoy coming back to it, but it unfortunately isn’t the task at hand. I also got a start on a set of songs that I’ll be doing for DM’s group. So there is some hope. It isn’t like the well is dry; the muse just isn’t following orders. What do you expect from a muse? Obedience? Doing as told? Following orders like a soldier? Of course not!

Baboon's Tune

Starting a new compositions is a great challenge for The Living Composer. He chuckles at the words of Ezra Pound:

There once was a brainy baboon
Who always breathed down a bassoon,
For he said, "It appears
That in billions of years
I shall certainly hit on a tune."

-Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

Welcome to The Living Composer

Welcome to the blog of The Living Composer. Enjoy yourself. Sit back, have a coffee, make yourself comfortable as you take in the thoughts, rants, and musings.