Archive for May, 2014

Quentin Letts Shows Us What Ugly Is

What Ugly Isn't

What Ugly Isn’t

There’s been an uproar in the opera world after London critics delivered a series of very personal insults regarding Tara Erraught’s weight. “Dumpy of stature”, “unappealing”, and “chubby bundle of puppy fat” gives you a sense of it. Most of the critics have since tried to contextualize their comments as specific to the role at hand, one in which Miss Erraught plays a rakish young man. Indeed, it’s somewhat easier to swallow these comments as captions under an image from the production being reviewed than under Miss Erraught’s publicity still. But in a startlingly tone deaf retort, Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail actually doubles down, amazingly hurling a new round of insults towards the singer while defending the critic’s responsibility to speak their truth.

Here’s the thing Quentin, your truth ain’t shit. Your narrow definition of beauty has been polluting our collective brains for too long. If you were really searching for a truth, your criticism would read more like “Miss Erraught, who is more attractive than ninety nine percent of the people I encounter in the real world, and quite a bit more attractive than anyone I have ever shared any sort of intimacy with, doesn’t match the standard of beauty that I have been conditioned to expect when watching television or movies. By choosing to use my reviews to point out this difference in a particularly hateful way, I not only perpetuate these ridiculous, deceitful, and disgusting expectations, but I show that people who don’t conform to these standards shouldn’t be treated with respect or consideration. In short, I am a total asshat.”

Now that’s a truth worth publishing.

We’ve learned a lot about these critics in the past few weeks, enough for me to completely discount their thoughts and opinions regarding just about anything. We’re not censoring your thoughts, Quentin, we’ve just realized that they’re worthless.


May 2014

When Bad Music Happens To Good Critics

In an article entitled “The Composer As Critic” composer Andrew Ford conflates two points, first that one should be able to divorce your own taste from one’s criticism of a piece, and second, one should refrain from reviewing bad works in general. In making his case, Ford cites Auden: “Attacking bad books is […] a waste of time [and] bad for the character.”

There are certainly many different metrics by which to judge a piece, but for discussion, let’s explore the following: “Do I like it?” (the subjective metric), “Would anyone like it?” (the collective metric), and “Should anyone like it?” (the objective metric). The first questions is purely subjective, it’s the taste that Ford believes should be removed from one’s criticism. The second question is where the critic imagines a hypothetical audience and, divorced from his or her own taste, looks for what that audience member might enjoy. Then there’s that hairy third question, with that prescriptive “should”. It presumes some universal standard of merit, a yardstick by which all pieces should be measured, and that the critic has the ability to discern where a work belongs on that scale.

It’s rare these days for a critic to claim to speak authoritatively for that third metric. Maybe critical hubris has become an endangered species in a world where everyone can publish their thoughts with the press of a “comment” button. (If opinions are like assholes, the internet is a tapestry of sphincters.) But I rather like the idea of a critic with the conviction that their taste is the RIGHT taste, that what they like is what SHOULD be liked. That there is indeed some universal metric for quality that we all strive for as creators and a critical body that makes that distinction. As a consumer of content, I feel enough strength in my sensibilities and convictions that I won’t be unduly swayed by an assertive critic whose tastes don’t align with my own and as a creator of content, receiving a well considered response to my work is a gift.

When faced with a bad work, what should the critic do? Auden says that it’s impossible to criticize a bad work without showing off, without engaging one’s facilities merely to find new and entertaining ways to savage a piece. (I’m reminded of the invective I hurled at Mark Narins’s opera Theresa Kren). But that seems a cop out. Wouldn’t a better critic engage their facilities to examine and articulate exactly WHY the piece doesn’t work? Wouldn’t such an insight be useful to an artist and audience, regardless of taste? And why would criticizing a good piece be any different? In the absence of such an analysis, without spending time to figure out the “why” of the good, wouldn’t the critic merely be showing off by finding new and entertaining ways to PRAISE a piece?

So go ahead critics, show some taste. Let’s get some flavor in there. Let’s hear about what you like, what you hate, and most importantly, why.  Will we learn more about you than we learn about the piece, as Ford asserts? Maybe, but if done properly, we will learn both about you AND the piece. And that will help orient us as you review future pieces. And we’ll all go on creating and critiquing and failing and succeeding and the remains of our meager attempts to improve on the past will define the standards for the audiences of tomorrow.



May 2014

Battle Chorale at the SF Conservatory

Choral writing is the foundation of Western music, the genesis of counterpoint, and the basis for functional harmony as we know it. Writing for chorus (as well as singing in a chorus, regardless of vocal abilities) was a requirement for compositions students of Nadia Boulanger, (as well as in the European American Music Alliance program where I studied two years ago). It’s not surprising that David Conte, a student of Boulanger would continue this tradition in his own pedagogy with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in the form of a biennial choral composition competition. Last week was the ninth such competition with a total of 19 pieces vying for cash prize and bragging rights.

Each piece was performed by either the Conservatory Chorus Vocal Ensemble, the San Francisco Choral Artists, or the International Orange Chorale. (It wasn’t clear how the pieces were assigned to the ensembles, but it did seem like the more straightforward pieces went to the Conservatory Chorus). Before the performance, the composers would speak briefly about the piece, often explaining their choice of text and the ideas behind their settings.

I was surprised that for the vast majority of composers, this was their first time writing a choral piece. I would have expected that such a requirement would have come up earlier in their studies, especially considering the importance of choral writing in the western tradition. Choral pieces (and to an even greater extent, string quartets) are are a true test of a composer’s harmonic imagination, since the homogeneity of the voices robs the composer of the expended timbral palette of an orchestra to add color and interest. (This is less true in these days of extended vocal technique, as evidenced by Roomful of Teeth). All you’ve got to develop your ideas are the notes, without any flashy brass or blasts of percussion to hide behind.

The quality of the pieces, as one would expect, were varied. All of them showed a good sense of vocal writing and a decent ear for harmony. A few suffered from a lack of a direction, without strong gestures to grab the ear, orient the listener, and give a sense of departure, arrival, or development. Anne Polyakov’s treatment of Susan Griffin’s Summer Night showed a sensitivity to the text, the music nicely illustrating the images in the poems. It was fun to hear both Kyle Randall and Marko Bajzer with different approaches to the same text, Lorca’s Landscape, although Bajzer’s odd choice to end his setting with a lone alto singer intoning the final few words of the poem left the audience wondering if someone had perhaps made a mistake… perhaps someone had.

Jan Stoneman’s Kyrie eleison was the first piece of the evening to use extended techniques, with whispered text and pitch bending glissandi evoking a moving and otherworldly reverence. It, along with Nick Benavides wonderfully structured and harmonically imaginative setting of e.e. cummings i thank you God for most this amazing day, were the most arresting pieces of the evening. (Although I wish Benavides had done something more arresting with cummings’s explosive “yes” at the close of the first stanza). The judge’s tastes were well aligned with mine. They declared both Stoneman’s and Benavides’s works, along with Shase Hernandez’s setting of Walt Whitman’s As Adam Early in the Morning, in a three way tie for first place, the first time the prize was split evenly in the event’s history.

As the crowd pounced on the buffet table at the closing reception, there was some speculation around what the competition would look like in two years. The SF Conservatory is changing quickly. David H Stull has been the president for just under a year and has a strong vision for the future of the school. David Conte is becoming the chair of the composition department, stepping in for Dan Becker, and a replacement hasn’t yet been announced for Conrad Susa, who we lost last winter. But with Conte at the helm, and Ragnar Bohlin of the SF Symphony Chorus taking over conducting duties for the Conservatory Chorus, it seems certain that the choral tradition will remain integral to the program.




May 2014

Four Laughs Per Minute: What Music Can Learn From Comedy

Daniel Koren: Composer, Comedian, and Pretty Good Dancer

In his setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, premiered last week in its entirety by Cantori New York (and again this Saturday, May 10), composer Benjamin C. S. Boyle finishes each verse with a recapitulation of the refrain “Ierusalem, Ierusalem, conertere ad Dominum Deum tuum”. With each return, the treatment of this text becomes increasingly ecstatic, ultimately bursting into a ten part exhalation. After the third statement of the text, I found myself wondering, “How is he going to top the intensity of THAT one”, only to be impressed by the resources brought to bear in the next iteration.

When I mentioned this reaction to Dr. Boyle after the concert, he said that he often challenges his composition students this way. How much further can you go? How can you make this section even more interesting, more intense? This resonated with me. Often I find myself wondering if the music I’m writing is too complacent, too satisfied with what it is. Sure, it can be listenable, recognizable as worthy music, and maybe even enjoyable, but how does it compare with the greatest music ever written? Is it really the best I can do?

I recalled a performance I saw at LaMaMa just the day before, a multimedia concert, theater piece, comedy act from Daniel Koren. One of the things that impressed me with Koren was how densely packed his material was. It seemed like not a minute passed without some reversal or surprise or gag that recontextualized what we had just seen, confounding our expectations with surreal and often hilarious results. Koren’s piece was immediately gratifying and enjoyable in a way that new pieces of concert music rarely are. (You can see his videos on YouTube, but I highly recommend catching the live show if you have an opportunity. Much of the strength of the work is the interaction between the live performance and the videos.)

Koren’s act would feel at home in a comedy club, where success is measured in laughs per minute. Four laughs per minute is considered the minimum for a comedian who expects to get hired again. What if a similar metric existed for music, if there was some way of measuring interest or surprise or resolution of tension? What if you evaluated the music you wrote to make sure that every minute there was something that kept the listener going, that delighted or surprised them. Imagine applying that metric and asking yourself Dr. Boyle’s question… Are you doing enough? Could you do better?

Now composition isn’t comedy. Most of us have far loftier goals than to merely entertain (no offense to the legions of comedians reading my blog). But if we lose track of the listener’s need to be engaged, we’ll never manage to get their attentions long enough to say what we really want to. If we want a listener to listen deeply, we first need to get them to enjoy listening superficially. As we make compositional choices, are we considering the listeners attentions? Are we giving them enough to keep them interested? Are our ideas strong enough? Clear enough? Engaging enough? Can we do better?

Not a practice that Adorno would likely espouse, but then again, that one time he hosted Saturday Night Live was a disaster.


May 2014

Review: Singing Sexbots – The Companion

The other brief opera presented last week at Roulette by Ear Heart Music, American Opera Projects, and the American Modern Ensemble took a much more traditional approach to the theatricality of opera. While The Wanton Sublime was a static, largely plot-less monologue, The Companion was a fairly straightforward musical play, with conventional scenes, dialogue, conflict, and arias. If The Wanton Sublime was a meditation on the duality of the idealized woman, both pristine, virginal, yet still manifestly physical, The Companion is a bedroom farce about the idealized man, or at least technology’s efforts to create one.

The second in a trilogy of sex themed miniatures from composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote, The Companion tells the story of a robotic mate, a Blade Runner-ish android that is custom built to take care of one’s domestic and carnal needs. As is often the case in such stories, the technology has some glitches, not quite living up to the marketing hype.

The piece is charming and likable. The text is well set and well sung, with conventional arias for each character eliciting enthusiastic applause. Brandon Snook, as Joe, the robotic sex toy, exudes a Ken doll appeal with the comedic sensibilities to pull off the glitchy non-sequiturs of his underperforming AI module. His owner, the increasingly frustrated executive Maya (Nancy Allen Lundy), already in debt from the purchase, overextends herself further in an effort to upgrade to a flashier model, bringing in Kyle Guglielmo as her very much flesh and blood tech support guy, Dax. Dax is a good deal hunkier than your average robotics software nerd, a darker, stubblier foil to Joe’s wax and polish, yet his advances are spurned. Why Maya would prefer Joe’s antiseptic distance to Dax’s immediate presence is a mystery that the libretto doesn’t convincingly address. Instead we’re left with Dax’s rueful musing that humans are “broken machines”.

Ultimately, the story is rather thin. The plot twists in the third act arrive already undermined since Dax’s attraction to Maya is spelled out in the second act, and Joe’s own surprise paramour is strongly hinted at back in the first. The premise itself is well worn, and would have benefited from a fresh angle other than the novelty of the operatic voice. Instead the story is largely limited to the same tropes found in any number of science fiction stories topped with a sudden and largely unconvincing resolution. One can’t help but feel that Cote’s bright libretto, Paterson’s lovely score, and the strong performances throughout would have been better served by a few more revisions of the story early on in the process. Like its titular robot, The Companion is eager to please, but could use a bit more meat under its skin.



May 2014