Become Ocean, John Luther Adams's latest act of sonic sorcery, had its premiere at the Seattle Symphony on Thursday night. Sadly, the composer was unable to attend, for medical reasons. Gavin Borchert had an advance notice in the Seattle Weekly; there are reviews from Melinda Bargreen and also from The Lutosławskian, a precocious teen-aged Seattle commentator. I'll have a review in The New Yorker a week from Monday, alongside a notice of Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, at the San Francisco Opera.
June 21, 2013 | Permalink
A voyage westward will prevent me from seeing the 2013 edition of Make Music NY. After last year's epic broiler, the weather gods seem inclined to smile on tomorrow's affair: the forecast calls for bright sun but a high of merely eighty-six degrees. Steve Smith has a handy preview of several of the potential highlights: three R. Murray Schafer events on Central Park Lake, including a performance of his Credo, with 144 singers; a 175-keyboard rendition of Jed Distler's Broken Record on Cornelia Street (Steve promises, or threatens, that Mayor Bloomberg will be involved); So Percussion and Eli Keszler's Archway, with piano wires suspended from the Manhattan Bridge; and an ambitious mounting of Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning, unfolding over ten hours. Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim looks ahead to the Cardew in a New York Times piece, while Lev Bratishenko has a preview of the Schafer. The Canadian master, codifier of the concept of "soundscape," has long been a pioneer in site-specific composition, notably in his Patria series. Patria 7: Asteríon will have a performance in August, as part of Schafer's eightieth-birthday celebrations.
June 20, 2013 | Permalink
June 18, 2013 | Permalink
June 18, 2013 | Permalink
"This eternal piano-playing is too much to bear! ... This shrill tinkling with no natural resonance, this heartless whirring, this ultra-prosaic banging and pecking — the fortepiano is killing all our thoughts and feelings, and we are becoming stupid, dull, imbecilic. This prevalence of piano playing, not to speak of the triumphal march of the piano virtuosos, is characteristic of our time and bears witness to the victory of machine over spirit. Technical proficiency, the precision of an automaton, the identification with strung wood, the sonic instrumentalization of human beings, is now hailed and praised as the highest good.”
— Heinrich Heine, Paris, 1843
Heine being a master ironist, this jeremiad should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the resemblance to modern-day denunciations of encroaching technology is amusing.
June 16, 2013 | Permalink
Annals of American Wagneriana: Richard Lehnert sent me the program for Peter Sellars's legendary, unrecorded one-evening version of the Ring. Lisa Hirsch was there: "The giants were macramé, and you could see them only from the hips down, hung from the flies on the proscenium stage. The galloping Valkyries were children's hobby-horses, the magic provided by the best use of a disco ball I've ever seen in my life." More memories of early Sellars are here.
June 16, 2013 | Permalink
"I have often heard it said that music cannot boast of translating anything with certainty, as can writing and painting. This is true in a certain sense, but it is not entirely true. Music translates in its own way, through means which are its own. In music, as in painting and even the written word, which is still the most positive of the arts, there is always a lacuna to be filled in by the imagination of the listener."
— "Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris."
June 15, 2013 | Permalink
For the past couple of years, most of what I've read has been Wagnerism-related — about which I have no complaints, since my book will encompass much of the greatest literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as some of the weirdest. But I did drop everything to read Chimamanda Adichie's merciless, compassionate new novel Americanah. It tells of a young Nigerian woman who comes to America and, after a long struggle to find her footing, begins writing a blog on American racial neuroses. The perceptions on race are breathtaking, as various reviewers have noted; Ruth Franklin, in BookForum, delivers a particularly acute commentary. But I'd also like to put in a word for Adichie's style. I have a hard time with a lot of contemporary fiction; I've begun any number of acclaimed new novels, often by men self-consciously vying for the Great American Novel title, and stopped after thirty pages in a state of bored frustration. In an age of chronic overwriting, Adichie has found a voice that is noble, spare, shorn of show, at once uncommonly elegant and uncomfortably direct.
I'm also planning to read George Packer's The Unwinding, Edna O'Brien's Country Girl, Choire Sicha's Very Recent History, and David Margolick's Dreadful, about the dark, short life of John Horne Burns.
June 12, 2013 | Permalink
Mark Morris is set to unleash a winsome welter of events at this year's Ojai Festival, including the Bad Plus Rite (Ethan Iverson writes in advance here), a Lou Harrison gamelan program, the staggering new Morris dance Jenn and Spencer (to Henry Cowell), various works of John Luther Adams (Strange and Sacred Noise, songbirdsongs, For Lou Harrison), and a cache of Cage.... Adams will then proceed north for the world première of his big new orchestral piece Become Ocean, at the Seattle Symphony, June 20-23. This work is an outgrowth of Dark Waves.... The splashiest undertaking at this year's Make Music NY is a performance of R. Murray Schafer's Credo on Central Park Lake, with 144 singers under the direction of George Steele. Note also Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning, Melissa Elledge's all-accordion In C, and a five-borough rendition of Cage's 49 Waltzes. The full schedule is here.... The eighteen-year-old Conrad Tao is a talent to watch, both as pianist and composer, as Voyages, his spiky debut EMI album, attests. Next week he is curating a three-day festival called Unplay, with his own works programmed alongside those of Tristan Perich, Phil Kline, Kate Davis, Julia Wolfe, and the like.... The Chelsea Music Festival also gets under way next week, with a focus on Britten; I'm especially intrigued by an Ensemble Amarcord program called The Ghost of Gesualdo.... Big early-music doings in June: the Boston Early Music Festival (June 9-16) will have a full staging of Handel's Almira; and the Festival Montréal Baroque (June 21-24) will feature the Ensemble Caprice in what may prove to be a controversial reconstruction of Vivaldi's Motezuma.... The full schedule for this year's Bang on a Can Marathon, on June 16, has been announced. David Lang's death speaks, with Shara Worden, is one highlight.... Martin Bresnick's first opera, My Friend's Story, has its premiere in New Haven on June 19.... The singular Laurie Anderson is curating a series of events at the River to River Festival, June 18-22.
June 05, 2013 | Permalink
Back in 2007, on the occasion of the death of Tikhon Khrennikov, the longtime head of the Soviet Composers' Union, I offered a few thoughts on a widely maligned figure, taking note of scattered attempts to rehabilitate him. Was he the voice of ideological oppression, spreading misery through the ranks of his more gifted colleagues? Or did he quietly work to protect those colleagues from worse fates? Glancing through the most recent literature on Soviet music and composers, I don't see any clear consensus emerging. Kiril Tomoff's Creative Union, a history of the Composers' Union, yields a surprisingly positive portrait. Simon Morrison's recent work on and around Prokofiev — The People's Artist and the new book Lina and Serge, a moving biography of Prokofiev's first wife — puts Khrennikov in a generally unsympathetic light, yet records gestures of compassion on his part, such as his attempts to have Lina released from prison. (She was sent to the gulag in 1948.) Alexander Ivashkin, in the latest issue of the Paul Sacher Journal, has an acidulous account of Khrennikov's relationship with Stravinsky, exposing the bureaucrat's more absurd self-justifications. (Did you know that in 1962 Stravinsky embraced the idea of moving to the Soviet Union? So Khrennikov claimed.) Likewise, Khrennikov plays a less than heroic role in David Fanning's biography of Mieczysław Weinberg. Khrennikov often did not help his own case in his later interviews. "Don't forget there were many Jews in musical life and they launched unfair attacks on my compositions," he told Martin Sixsmith in 2006, before going on to praise Stalin.
Even the most Khrennikov-friendly scholar, though, might balk at the formulation attached to an upcoming Khrennikov centenary concert in St. Petersburg, to which David Shengold drew my attention: "Fate granted Tikhon Nikolaevich Khrennikov a long and productive life. Destiny decreed that for half a century Khrennikov stood at the helm of a composers’ organization – from 1948 as Secretary General and from 1957 as First Secretary of the Board of the Union of Composers of the USSR. During the worst years of ideological diktat he was forced to bend to the harsh dogmas of official normative aesthetics and the infringements of officials on his professional honour and the merits of musicians. The main proof of his gift as a composer, however, and the measure of him as a man remains his music." The last phrase is inarguable. Khrennikov's music, adroitly constructed but lacking in character, sums him up fairly well.
The conductor of the Khrennikov Memorial Concert will be Valery Gergiev, recently named a Hero of Labor.
June 04, 2013 | Permalink
Longtime readers will have seen this photo a number of times. I took it while driving the Trona-Wildrose Road, in Panamint Valley, CA, in 1999. In an interview for the wonderful blog Gilded Birds — which canvasses "contemporary ideals of beauty" from a range of artists, musicians, and writers — I try to explain why this snapshot obsesses me. Forgive the gratuitous Wagner and Schopenhauer references: I am in that place.
June 03, 2013 | Permalink
June 02, 2013 | Permalink
In the past decade or two, we've seen a significant wave of pop-based musicians who've taken a deep interest in twentieth-century classical composition. Radiohead, Björk, and Joanna Newsom come immediately to mind. Here are two younger examples, who otherwise don't have much in common: Holly Herndon, a fast-rising electronic artist who studied at Mills College and names Galina Ustvolskaya and Maryanne Amacher as major influences: and Dywane Thomas, Jr., aka MonoNeon, a Memphis-born bass-guitarist and composer who draws on the microtonal tradition. (See also "Memphis Jookin with Microtones" and "Julián Carrillo in a Memphis Juke Joint.") I like a sentence in the MonoNeon Art Manifesto: "Have the southern soul/blues and funk at the bottom and the experimental/avant-garde at the top." And they say all the possibilities are exhausted....
This concludes Anti-Anniversary Week; for prior installments, read down.
June 02, 2013 | Permalink