Friday, August 3, 2012

Self-promotion department

There's still time to listen to my appearance on Marvin Rosen's program Classical Discoveries Goes Avant-Garde. The mp3 files will remain on Marvin's website until August 12.

Response to our all-Carter program has been limited, but uniformly positive. Some of my friends didn't care for the music, but they thought I did pretty well, which was a relief. I felt I stammered and repeated myself, and I had these visions of listeners sitting in their cars thinking, "Who is this goofball?"

Marvin said it had been a "great show," and, more inportant, so did his wife, Beata, who, I am told, is his most outspoken critic, one who would never say anything just to be nice. I want to her, too, for driving me from the Rosen house to the studio and back. Without her, I mostly likely would have been at least a half hour late to the show. I left my house in plenty of time, but, driving up Route 1, I missed my turn off and ended up a couple of townships away. Finally, when the trip odometer hit 40 miles — after Google Maps had assured me the journey from my home to the Rosens' was only 33 — I decided the time had come to turn around.

I walked into the studio with about eight minutes to spare. I was feeling frazzled and very foolish, but Marvin assured me we had plenty of time, and he was right. He loaded the first CD, and there was nothing left to do but sit and chat and load up on bottled water.

The WPRB studio is a seedy, poorly ventilated, trapezoidal room in the basement of Princeton's Bloomberg Hall. The window in front of the board looks out onto an empty elevator well and, beyond, a meandering white corridor. (During On Conversing With Paradise, I went out to use the men's room and followed the corridor to its dead end before going back. I'd missed the turn, as I had on Route 1. A pattern was developing.)

The board was compact, with a pair of turntables on one side and a stack of CD players on the other. There were two foam-shrouded microphones, mounted on swivel booms. I sat at the one on the right as we faced out the studio window. Marvin told me to speak up and keep my lips close to the mike. I actually didn't hear much of the music I had brought. Marvin and I spent much of the time going over what we would talk about during our next segment. He had a list of questions prepared, and he told me in advance what he was going to ask so there would be no unpleasant surprises. Near the end of the show, he said he wanted to ask what Carter was working on these days, and when I told him I didn't know, he said he would skip it. This was not gotcha journalism. He wanted me to be at ease.

The time on-air went by quickly — so quickly, indeed, that we didn't have time for all of the music I had wanted to play. I had hoped to finish up with Carter's Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord, but by the time the Concerto for Orchestra was finished, we had only about eight or so minutes left. Fortunately, I had brought a couple of alternates. Marvin asked me a few parting questions, and we played the "Bariolage," a six-minute piece for solo harp, which took us right up to the end of the show.

The DJ with the time slot after Marvin's cut it even closer that I had. He arrived a minute or so late, while the station ID was still playing. For a while, Marvin thought he was going to have to stay on the air.

Marvin, Beata and I had a post-mortem lunch at a family-owned Mexican restaurant in Princeton. Then Marvin went to work at Westminster Choir College, and Beata gave me a tour of their house and garden. I thought I was a compulsive collector, but Marvin owns more than 15,000 CDs. They are everywhere, except for two small rooms — the kitchen and an upstairs office — where Beata forbids them. In the living, they are actually a theme of the interior decor, covering an entire wall. The place smelled pleasantly of fresh-cut wood, a symptom of the endless rows of IKEA shelves.

I haven't listened to the broadcas, by the way. If I want to hear it again, I can just replay the CDs on my home stereo and avoid all the commentary.


Cal said...

No, I didn’t really care for Carter’s music. It was good to hear the individual pieces in the context of his other works and your comments, but as a whole I wasn’t captured.

I kept thinking about Mark Rothko. For a long time, I didn’t get Rothko. The big colored rectangles. Then my brother helped me out. We were talking about painting and he off-handedly referred to Rothko as a “colorist”. I said to myself, “That’s it! If I think of him as a colorist, then I don’t have to worry about whether or not he is an artitst, or whether or not his paintings are art. I can sidestep that issue.” It was a stupid barrier to have to get through but I got through it and became a fan.

Then came the black on black paintings. There was a show of them at the National Gallery of Art in DC. Reviewers were using words like “sublime” to describe them. I spent an hour one day looking at those paintings, went away, came back, did everything I could think of to find them sublime. Was he now a “blackist”? A “texturist”? Nothing worked. I never did get them. I didn’t feel that I had betrayed him exactly, but I felt bad that I hadn’t been able to go where he had led, since once before he had led me to an extraordinary place.

Throughout the broadcast, I kept thinking, “Is there a barrier here that I need to sidestep?” Is there a word I can use? I kept thinking how difficult it was to think of the things I was hearing as “notes.” So I tried “sounds”. That seemed to help. I said to myself that Carter was working not with notes but with any kind of sound that a conventional orchestral instrument might make. But the trick didn’t work. They were still black on black.

I just wanted you to know that I tried, and that I used a method that had yielded results once before. I expect that I have risked being removed from the list of good things that America has produced, but there it is.

Joe Barron said...

No, you'll never be taken off the list, and I love you for making the effort. I have lived with Carter's music so long that it's sometimes easy to forget that some of my favorite pieces - such as the Concerto for Orchestra and the Second String Quartet - did not "capture" me at first, either. It was only after repeated listening, based on the feeling that there was something her worth "getting," and, in some cases, an exciting live performance, that I became attuned to what this music has to offer, and how much.

You're on to something with your distinction between notes and sounds, although Carter's music is thoroughly composed, and the notes are carefully chosen. I would never say he is simply making noise the way, say, Cage did. Carter is a long way from being a “conceptual” composer. He has said, however, that near the end of the 1950s, he stopped thinking in terms of long-lined thematic development and concentrated instead on the building blocks of music - specifically, intervals and the instrumental sonority, that is, the way instruments physically make sound. The result, in the 60s and 70s, was music in which brief figures and characteristic gestures are pieced together into overarching structures, a technique used to stunning effect in the Concerto for Orchestra. The recent music seems to fashion a sort of compromise: one is aware again of longer, more “integrated” lines, as in the 4th SQ, but there are no themes or repetition, and the intervals and gestures still underlie the structure.

That's as good as I can do off the top of my head. It’s also a gross oversimplification.

As always, the best advice comes from Charles Rosen: When dealing with unfamiliar music, it is important to know not only what to listen for, but also what not to listen for.

Cal said...

" . . . repeated listening, based on the feeling that there was something her worth "getting," and, in some cases, an exciting live performance . . . "

Repeated listening. OK, I can do that, even though I don't yet sense the worthy something that you sensed (and that I did sense with Rothko and also Pollock, so I do know what I'm talking about).

An "exciting" live performance. This sounds as if there might be some performances that are not exciting. If you pick one out that has a high probability of being exciting, I'll give it a go.

Joe Barron said...

Perhaps I've expressed myself badly (always an embarrassment for a professonal writer). What I meant to say is that the live performances of Carter's music I have attended,as a call, have been exciting. Some more so than others, of course, but I can't say I've ever been to a bad one. Any musician with the ambition and desire to perform Carter usually has the wherewithal to bring it off. As for recommendations, I don't follow the music schedules in your neck of the woods, so I don't know what's coming up. Keep checking the paper, or the Web. And if you're willing to come to Philadelphia or travel with me to NYC, we can make arrangments.