Monday, August 15, 2005

"Is John Adams still alive?"

Dude - was the last time I really updated this blog May 17th? Jesus man - what's up with you?!

Well, the summer has been a sort of fruitful one - I guess I could have been a little less of a slacker, but that wouldn't have been true to form now would it? Personal stuff aside (hey - this is supposed to be a music blog - still not sure if I still want to post all of my stupid personal BS online - I mean who cares?), I have thought a lot about music this summer.

One of the biggest things I've been thinking about is the fact that, as much as I really want to bring people's interest and passion back to concert music, I think it's even more important (or, more pressing) that we (composers) win back our performers first.

I recently met quite a few performers here at IU, most of them being pianists, and I made it a point to ask every single one of them the same, simple question. "Have you ever played any new music?"

Most just said no, but occasionally, one would say, "Yeah, I LOVE new music!". "Great!" I'd say, "What have you played?". "Well, I played Bernstein, and Bartok, and Copland!".

*bangs head against wall*

Is something that's 50 years old new? Is something that was written by someone who DIED 30-60 years ago of OLD AGE new?!? "How does this make sense to people?", I ask.

I asked one guy if he even knew of any living composers - now keep in mind this is a classical pianist - this is supposed to be someone that would actually play a composers music - his answer: "Is John Adams still alive?"

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation about this very issue with my good friend and newstyle colleague, Mutsuhito Ogino. Mu had recently returned from Paris, France where he studied at the summer program at L'Ecole Normale. During the festival, his Clarinet Suite was performed, but according to him, not extremely well. He was dumbfounded as to why the pianist had such trouble with the piece, as technically it's not difficult, and she had also performed such technically and musically demanding work as Dutilleux.

I think there are many reasons that living composers have to suffer often not-so-great premiers and performances. One reason is that the piece doesn't exist in the real world yet, only in the mind of the composer. There is nothing for the performer to refer to, except the score - no one in the history of humanity has played or interpreted this piece - in a sense it doesn't even really exist yet. An analogy can be drawn to our observation of a person. We can say that a piece like Beethoven's 5th Symphony is like an old man. We can look at him, smell him, talk to him, examine his long life in detail, get to know his personality - he exists in the world and has existed for a long time - it's not hard to see him and get to know him. On the other hand, Mu's piece is like an unborn fetus. What is this person like? What do they smell like? How do they interact with others? Etc etc - it is impossible to tell because the person exists only in the womb of its mother. The only real way to observe the person in this state is through an ultrasound picture, which is merely a fuzzy, abstract representation on the actual person, which needs to be explained to the parents (or anyone else) by the doctor - the ultrasound being analogous to a musical score.

A piece of music is no different. I have found repeatedly over the years that people are much more likely to want to perform a piece of music that has already been recorded well. This is simply because it already exists in the world - it can be understood simply by observing it. You don't have to be a doctor and actually give birth to the thing, which can be a long and sometimes painful ordeal.

One misconception that I think many performers have (and unfortunately their teachers as well) is that they fully expect a brand new piece to be as instantly understandable as a Beethoven Sonata. If they don't "get it" right away, then it's no good, or sub-standard, or something's wrong with it. What they don't realize is that when Beethoven wrote his sonatas, no one understood them at first, and that's well documented (just read Slominsky's "Lexicon of Musical Invective" sometime).

I've been saying for a while now that I want to "win back" our performers - that I think it's important, but what am I really doing about it? I think I'm going to email every instrumental studio/professor and ask them if I can speak in that studios weekly master class about this issue. Today's performers do not take new music seriously, and don't even consider it important to play. This is SCARY. We need to change this. I'm currently formulating how I'm going to approach talking about this issue without making it an attack on the performers, or thier teachers. More on this later - and more updates - I promise!

Artist Review Numero Uno

I just recently purchased this PBS DVD called "Art 21", which documents several living artists currently creating new and exciting work in the 21st century. I find this extremely fascinating, because for one, I absolutely love art, especially painting, and I feel very intimately linked to it through color and sound. One big reason for this is that I experience synaesthesia when I hear sound - something that I've always experienced but never really talked about for personal reasons, although I'm starting to talk about it a little bit now. So, when I look at paintings (especially abstract ones such as Jackson Pollock for instance), I can "see" sound, just like I can "hear" color. As I'm not really in the art world, I don't know who most of these people are or what kind of work they are doing, but I found it so fascinating that I thought I would sort of talk about each artist that I learn about, starting with three.

Richard Serra

Serra is a groundbreaker in the world of sculpture, and is doing some very exciting new things with the medium. He creates these absolutely massive, architectural and monolithic sculptures that somehow still contain movement. You can actually walk into these massive sculptures, which kind of ecapsulate the space inside, making the air within sort of part of the sculpture. I get the feeling that these things are something to be experienced as much as seen. I was actually surprised at how fascinated I was with his work, since sculpture and installation don't usually resonate with me as much as painting does.

Sally Mann

Again, I wasn't expecting to be as taken with this as I was given that her medium is photography, and black and white photography at that, but I was wrong again - heh. Sally Mann is interested in capturing the everyday and the mundane, but catching it somewhat flawed, or just "off". Her method of working is really interesting. She uses and old 19th century camera, and take the photographs onto chemically treated glass plates (a 19th century technique) which produces - man, just incredible looking images of seemingly ordinary things. It forces you to re-examine the ordinary in these things and wonder if there's more to it that you're missing. Some of the photos turn out ghostly, or ambiguous or obscured in some way. Others are so clear and confront you in such a personal way that they are almost uncomfortable to look at. Great stuff.

Margaret Kilgallen & Barry McGee

This husband and wife (in thier 20's at the time of the Art 21 documentary - or at least right around 30) work in a really wide variety of mediums and settings. It really wasn't made clear in the documentary that they were even together, and I just now found out (when I was looking for a link) that Margaret recently died of breast cancer at age 33, which really made me sad. Both of them had a strong connection to underground street art, especially graffiti (which they would do on public walls, fences, trains, whatever - and incredibly great stuff too - these two are truly talented), but also work in the gallery world selling thier work to collectors. It was interesting the dilemma that they found themselves in. On the one hand they enjoyed living as artists and making a living from selling their art, but on the other hand were careful not to lose touch with the world outside of the very closed and elite gallery and auction house world. They were actually more concerned with reaching "regular" people in the real world, than impressing a bunch of art buyers at art auctions, which I thought was extremely cool (something I'm really trying to keep in mind with my music). I was particularly taken with Barry McGee's work, which was definitely not pretentious and really aimed at a more underground and real art scene, but at the same time the dude has serious chops - really talented.

OK, more to come....