Friday, September 28, 2012

Congratulations, Elliott Carter

My man Elliott Carter was inducted into the French Legion of Honor Sept. 21, joining such notables as the immortal Jerry Lewis. Read the French ambassador's speech here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Presidential polls

Apparently, pollsters have added a new category of respondent in compiling data on the presidential race. The good news is that in Pennsylvania, Obama is leading not only among "likely voters," but also among "people Republicans might allow to vote."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cage on original instruments

So much went on at Sunday's John Cage happening that I wasn't able to mention everything in yesterday's post. To follow up: I was told by one of the performers that Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (the one for 12 radios and 24 performers) is getting harder to present as written, because it calls for radios that have dials, which most don't anymore (at least not for tuning), and because the numbers on the score refer to AM settings, and there are fewer AM stations than there used to be. (The piece was written in 1951.) The guy I spoke to admitted to using FM. Most of the radios on stage, however, were older varieties with dials (or knobs) for both volume and tuning, which led the guy to say we had just witnessed an original-instrument perfromance.

A lot of the postmortem conversations were like that, which, I guess, goes a long way to explaining my happy mood on the way home.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Orchestra 2001 performs (and doesn't) John Cage

Yesterday I attended the third of Orchestra 2001's three "happenings" celebrating John cage's centenary (which fell on April 5). It was held at Swarthmore College, SW of Philadelphia. I rushed in late, missing the first piece on the program (Inlets for conch shells), after spending an hour driving on Route 1 and another half hour wandering around campus looking for the hall. Needless to say, I was in an angry, rotten mood when I sat down, and it is a testament to both the composer and the performers that I was so happy, elated, and hungry when I left.

The program included selections from the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (including Sonata XII, my favorite), performed variously by James Freeman, Mark Loria (who played No. XII) and Andrew Hauze. Those in the audience who were unfamiliar with Cage were surprised and impressed by just beautiful the music was. This was the first time I had heard a prepared piano live, and I must say the sound is much more striking and resonant than it is on recordings. It was a treat, as was the opportunity to inspect the instrument up close during intermission.

Soprano Delea Shand, who came in from New York to sub for the ailing Ann Crumb, sang (and otherwise vocalized) the brief, funny “Aria.” She was a real trouper who gave the piece everything she had, and Freeman and company had the inspiration to project the graphic score on a screen during the performance, which let us see exactly was Shand handled Cage’s open-ended recipe.

I also liked the Imaginary Landscape No. 4, for 12 radios and 24 players, which is like walking down a long, empty corridor and hearing sounds spilling out of the open door as you pass. Believe it or not, this was the second time I’d ever heard it, and I don’t own a recording. The piece has to be experienced live. Otherwise you don’t get the little frissons that come from hearing own, local radio stations. During yesterday’s realization, for example, I heard the name Jimmy Rollins, and also the voice of Merrill Reese calling the Eagles game.

The afternoon ended with a (non)performance of Freeman’s own large-scale arrangement of 4ʹ33ʺ, which included audience (non)participation. I enjoyed it, but as I told James afterward, his tempi were a little brisk for my taste. I feel piece should have a stately, Brucknerian grandeur.

One word of criticism: Somebody switched on the speaker system just as Mark sat down to play the Sonatas. It was unnecessary, and the incessant background buzz throughout the performance was distraction to say the least, annoying to say the most.

One other word of criticism: Cage was an amateur mycologist, and in a tribute to his obsession, mushroom pizza was served at the post-concert reception. Unfortunately, only six pies were ordered, and, at eight slices a pie, that comes to only 48 slices for a crowd that numbered over 100. It was gone by the time I got out there. Oh, well. On the way home I stopped at a Mexican takeout in Bala Cynwyd and had a veggie burrito. Before intermission, this slip was shown on a screen above the stage.

Now, I ask you, what TV show today, on a commercial network, would dare have an artist like Cage as a guest?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Der Wein den man mit Ohren trinkt ...

My congratulations and thanks go to the faculty of the University of Delaware music department for the terrific performances of Pierrot Lunaire Friday and Sunday at the German Society of Pennsylvania. I attended both, because I figured, hey, how often do you get to hear Pierrot live? It was worth the extra trip, too, because, for whatever reason, I enjoyed the Sunday performance more. Maybe I was more alive to the sound, or maybe I was paying more attention to the performance than the words in the program, or maybe the ensemble was looser.

The music is like super-concentrated Wagner — extended recitative (and most of Wagner’s vocal music is extended recit) over a sensitive and arresting instrumental accompaniment.

Noel Archambeault, the soprano, was outstanding and expressive, despite a few balance problems. On Friday evening, she stood at behind the flutist and clarinetist on the German Society's shallow stage, and there were times I couldn't hear her at all. On Sunday, she stood further forward and off to the side, which helped — as did her tendency to hit the notes more strongly — through the problem persisted in some spots. (She also seemed to be tiring in the later sections.) I don't mean to cavil: the performance was too good to be ruined by an acoustic inconvenience.

Harvey Price conducted, ably and unobtrusively. Instrumentalists were Eileen Grycky, flute/piccolo; Marianne Gythfedlt, clarinet/bass clarinet; Timothy Swartz, violin/viola; Larry Stromberg, cello; and Julia Nishimura, piano. Cheers all around.

Only about 20 people showed up Friday evening, but the musicians put the best face on it. Tim Swartz said afterward he was happy there were more people in the audience than on stage. Sunday's attendance was better. I estimated the audience at fifty or more. The audiences may have been small, but they were knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Usually, in my experience, when a concert is devoted entirely to modern music and listeners arrive knowing what they are going to hear, they go home happy. The problem starts when the program is mixed, and half the audience is there to hear the Brahms. That's when the walk-outs occur.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Assemble your own Cage

Two nights ago I took my own advice from an earlier blog post. Lying awake at about 4 a.m., I began paying close attention to the sounds outside my bedroom window, and I turned them into a Cagean composition I call the "Stridulation Serenade."

The music — and I'll call it that — consisted of three layers: a chirruping pulse of crickets (which reminded me somewhat of Steve Reich), the underlying pedal point of an air-conditioner from another apartment, and occasional early-morning traffic noises, generally either the whoosh of tires or the revving of a motorcycle engine.

The piece lasted twenty-five minutes and was followed by an audio-visual event I titled “Dream Sequence.”

Thinking of Cage, I'm reminded of what Elliott Carter once said about aleatory music: "Play anything you want, just put my name in the program."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Normal is boring

After my preview of the Schoenberg concert was published last week, a young woman in the office asked me, "Joe, do you like any normal music?"

She didn't say exactly what she meant by normal, but I sort of knew what she meant, and she wasn't talking about Brahms.

The short answer to her question, then, is "no."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In the Cage

John Cage, innovator or charlatan, the man who taught us anything can be music, would have been 100 years old today. So listen to some Cage. It takes no effort. If you have no recordings or access to YouTube, you can take a moment to pay attention to the sounds in your home, your office, or on the street, and then say to yourself, "This is a John Cage composition."