Author Archive

Four Years

This is the first post in exactly four years.

Four years ago on November 7th, 2016 I was reflecting on the cathartic artistic explosion of Taylor Mac’s 24 hour theater piece. I had such hopes and dreams. I announced a plan to write up 24 essays about the experience. I was so sure I was going to do it. It was a done deal. “Starting tomorrow!” I stated as incontrovertible fact. As if “tomorrow” was a thing under my control.

And then… then November 8th, 2016 happened. The tomorrow in question. The unthinkable. The impossible. The utterly unimaginable disaster of Donald Trump becoming the president of this country derailed any plans for the future.

The past four years have been… tumultuous ones for me. Close friends died. A 25 year career at Pixar came to an end. Some serious health challenges arose. Foundational components of my life evaporated and through it all was the backdrop of a country becoming unrecognizable and unwelcoming.

But a number of good things happened as well. I had a great run as part of a vaudeville duo in San Franciscoso’s amazing immersive Speakeasy project. I’ve written some music and theater I’m very proud of, including Now I Am Become with Choral Chameleon and Death of a Playboy with West Edge Opera. I’ve been building a program within West Edge that aims to change the way opera gets commissioned.

And now, exactly four years after my last post, Donald Trump has been voted out of office. It seems fitting to post something after this strange, unsettling gap.

Will I start blogging again? I’m not sure. The future is still kinda hazy. I don’t expect it will ever be as unblemished as it was that Monday afternoon four years ago. But I expect things will start to get a little clearer as time goes on.

Maybe even tomorrow.

07

Nov 2020
23:11

24 Hours With Taylor Mac

Portrait of the author with Crazy Jane

Portrait of the author with Crazy Jane

A month ago I was testing my body’s limits, forcing myself to engage in Facebook debates even later than my customary 2:00 AM cut off. I was staying up until a bleary eyed 4:00 AM leaked into 5:00 AM, finally turning off the overhead light, and would be startled to find the room still illuminated by a disorienting, demoralizing haze of daylight seeping in through the curtained window.

I was training, preparing for an endurance test. I was about to attend Taylor Mac’s marathon performance spanning 24 Decades of American Popular Music in 24 hours. Non-stop. From noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday.

And not just as an audience member (as if anyone is truly “just” an audience member in Taylor’s brand of interactive participatory theater), but as a full fledged performer, a singer, one of a handful of vocalists from Choral Chameleon who would be playing the role of “prudish temperance choir that storms into a rollicking 1790s era pub and spoils everyone’s fun”. I was a collaborator. A colluder. I had crudite platter privileges in the green room.

I had already seen the first six hours of judy’s (Taylor’s preferred pronoun is judy, and I will be using it) marathon in San Francisco back in January, so when the co-producers at Pomegranate Arts reached out to the board of Choral Chameleon in July (which I sit on), it took about five minutes for me to chime in with my vote: a resounding “Yes, and I’m flying out for it!” I’ve been a fan since judy’s Lily’s Revenge took over a large chunk of Fort Mason and the Magic Theater with another sprawling multi-hour affair, there was no way I was going to miss an opportunity to be part of something this ambitiously insane.

24 hours. Each hour a different impractical and unwieldy costume. Each decade of America’s history contextualized and defined by the songs that were sung by its citizens. A multiply compound experiencing apparatus, America filtered through the minds of American songwriters, then subject to the market of American tastes and popularization, curated and reconstituted through the minds of Matthew Ray and Taylor Mac, and then collectively experienced again over a 24 hour period.

You know those little capsules you give kids? The ones that when you put them in water, the pill dissolves to reveal some foam dinosaur or something. In the days following the marathon, it felt like some very concentrated capsule had been shoved into my brain, one that would slowly transform into something else, a triceratops, or a spaceman, or Kentucky. Now, a month later, I still find moments from that epic day and night and day again occupying a new space in my brain.

In any given 24 hours in normal life, many many things happen. But most of them are largely automatic, habitual. I’d wager that under 4 hours a day are spent in actual engaged thought. So 24 hours of concentrated experience is something we are not built for. And this isn’t just experience, but intentional, surprising, entertaining, and provocative experience. So many things happened in that space of time last month. Simply listing my haphazard memories wouldn’t do the experience justice. But I have to do something.

So how about this: 24 Posts About 24 Moments in 24 Decades of American Popular Music in 24 Hours in 24 Days.

Huh. Ya know, I just thought of that. Right now. As I typed it.

That’s not bad.

Imma gonna do it.

Starting tomorrow!

07

Nov 2016
16:11

Dog Days: Trust, Betrayal, and That Which Can’t Be Unseen

Dog DaysI wasn’t prepared for the ending of Dog Days. I’d gleaned enough from the reviews that the piece was powerful and unsettling, but I wasn’t prepared. (This might be a good time to say SPOILER ALERT. And apparently the creators have asked critics not to reveal the ending. Read at your own risk. Then again, watch the piece at your own risk.)

But yes. The ending was a surprise to me. A most unpleasant surprise. Not because I couldn’t see it coming, if anything, part of the surprise was because it was TOO obvious. You start the show with a stray dog (or a man in a dog suit), a dad with a rifle, and a hungry family relying on dwindling government rations for food. What do you think will happen? Surely it will go somewhere besides the obvious resolution to that story. And if it does need to go there, surely it will be done in a way that transcends or illuminates. But, (surprise), it does. And, (bummer), it doesn’t.

The most bitter component of that disappointment: I TRUSTED them. Up until that final, miserable tableau, I had complete faith in the creators. They’d constructed a compelling world filled with human characters I cared about. There are a lot of things in the opera which are pretty darn good (feel free to read any of the superlative reviews in the major outlets if you doubt me). There were some questions (If there’s no food how do the boys manage to still have weed to smoke?) and some questionable staging choices (do we really need to see one of the boys jacking off under a blanket?), but I was in it and eager to see where they went. Until they went there.

I don’t need a happy ending, there’s salvation in a well earned catharsis, but if you’re going to bring on the brutal, you better have a damn good reason to subject your audience to the things you’re asking them to endure. And for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to take from this. Is there anyone over the age of 13 who doesn’t know full well that humans will do the unthinkable when starvation is the alternative? If you’re gonna bring the hoary chestnut of savage desperation to the stage, you better be bringing something new to the table besides the novelty of the shock. What’s the angle here? Where’s the insight?

With no answers to be gleaned from the production, I turned to the source material. Reading the excellent story, (take 15 minutes to read it for yourself), I understood the creative team’s impulse to adapt it. It’s great. It all revolves around the dichotomous identity of the dog.

In the opening paragraphs of the story, the dog suit is clearly a shabby affair, held together with safety pins, nothing anyone would confuse for a real dog. But over the course of the story the language changes, as first the mother and then the daughter become complicit with the fantasy. It suits their purposes for him to be a real dog, a loyal protective companion, a harmless neutered Prince, a simulacrum of the normal when the world is disintegrating around them. And so from then on, when the girl refers to him, he is never anything but a dog.

As for the men of the family, they have no use for the fantasy. He is always just a man in a dog suit, sometimes a nuisance, sometimes a threat, sometimes a reminder of what they themselves are a just a few weeks of missed meals away from becoming.

And then in the final paragraphs, the roles are reversed. Now it is the mother who insists that he is a man, as she pleads for his life. And it is the father who insists otherwise. He’s just an animal.

The opera does as good a job one could expect with this dichotomy. Writing a story you use nimble language to align the scene with the point of view of the observer, but with the meaty realities of the stage It’s a challenge to explore the nuances between a man portraying a dog and a man portraying a man pretending to be a dog. Veteran performance artist and dancer John Kelly straddles the line between man and canine, but with his wild hair and sinewy body, always remains edgily human, unlike the chameleonic Prince of the printed word, who could become all dog with a few well chosen phrases.

So why did I finish the short story completely satisfied, yet left the opera feeling utterly violated? I fear the creators failed to account for the fact that moving something from the mind’s eye of fiction to the flesh and blood physicality of the stage turns the haunting to the horrific, the unimaginable to the unwatchable.

The final paragraphs of the story describes Prince’s flight from the father’s rifle in gorgeous prose. The narrator insists on describing him as a dog even as in desperation he gets up to run as a man. Prince is at first “galloping on all fours across the yard, his tongue hanging out like a pink streamer” and then he is “on his hind legs, lurching away two-footedly, front legs pawing the air”. “Two-footedly”. Is there a more perfect word to express both the awkwardness of a motion as well as the awkwardness of the mental gymnastics it would take maintain the willful belief that this dog-man wasn’t actually born to walk on two feet? How do you show that complexity on stage in the brief seconds you have for that action? Not even the great John Kelly is going to come close to expressing what those two sentences communicate brilliantly.

And then the closing line of the story: “They run across the lawn, the pack of them, and fall upon him snarling.” The transformation is clear, succinct, beautiful. Upsetting, disturbing even, but not repulsive.

Consider instead seeing three men returning from offstage, faces and hands stained a shocking bright red with slick blood, meaty organs dangling from their mouths, shaking and convulsing while a shrieking orchestra blares out the same crunch that’s been crescendoing non stop for the past ten minutes. It’s garish, harrowing, and merciless. It’s beyond all proportion. Why?

And if that’s not enough, there’s more death, and a completely unrelated ritual involving yet more body fluids that has absolutely no basis in the source material. It’s like the creators, knowing that staging this would be uncomfortable, chose to double down on the horror. We’ve gone from post-apocalyptic coming of age parable to torture porn. It’s Grapes of Wrath by means of GWAR. Why? Why is this happening? What are you saying? What do you want from me? What did I do wrong? I TRUSTED YOU!

There are so many things one can take away from this short story: our ambivalent coexistence with animals as both food and companions, humanity’s capacity to devolve to animalistic behavior in the absence of structured society, our need to cling to the remnants of the familiar in stressful times, gender roles, the dissolution of the nuclear family… there’s a lot there. The opera manages to keep the remnants of many of these themes, or at least give them lip service, but then by ending with a sequence so abruptly discordant and severe, so aggressively hard to endure, it eclipses everything that’s happened before. The entire opera is about whatever the hell those last few minutes are about and nothing else. And… I’m afraid I just don’t know what that is. They’ve managed to take a short story that’s about a lot and reduce it to a grim spectacle that’s ultimately about nothing. An audience deserves better.

Heck. A dog deserves better.

14

Jan 2016
15:01

Hem – Half Acre – Analysis of a perfect thing

I often suffer from a common malady amongst composers, the illusion that complexity can make a weak idea stronger. Or perhaps make up for a deficiency in structure. Maybe it stems from the thinking that if you impress someone’s ear with something complex, they will be so wowed by your sophistication that they’ll figure that the music MUST be good. If they don’t like the music, surely that’s THEIR deficiency.

From now on, whenever I start to feel like I’m adding crunchy harmonies or complex rhythms to dress up a goat (not that there’s anything wrong with goats… or dressing them), I’m going to take a few minutes to listen to Hem’s magnificently sparse masterpiece, Half Acre. It is, I dare say, a perfect thing.

Here. Listen.

Is that NOT perfect? (If you don’t think so, you can feel just free to skip to some other blog.)

So… what’s going on here? I took some time to identify the key elements that make up this piece, focusing on the core of the song, the melodic and harmonic gestures that make this piece work.

The piece is quite sparse and made of of a few static elements. First there’s an ostinato figure on a distant piano that continues for the entirety of the song (taking a couple of beats of rest at a few cadential breaths).

Ostinato

[audio:http://musicvstheater.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Ostinato.mp3|titles=Ostinato]
Pretty clear C tonality, major or minor is unclear.

Then the harmonic backbone comes in underneath the ostinato:

Pasted Graphic 5

Section A backbone

Expansive open fifths with a fast, fast, slow harmonic rhythm, landing squarely on a C tonality in the second half of each measure, clearly C major with the A and E naturals. There’s no attempt at any sort of voice leading, just sound, sound, sound.

At the same time, a mandolin comes in with an easy, lilting line in a pentatonic C, avoiding F and B. (I’d argue that this isn’t really a core structural element but it does add to the character of the piece):

Pasted Graphic 10

Mandolin line

[audio:http://musicvstheater.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Intro.mp3|titles=Intro]

And finally the real melody begins with the utterly gorgeous voice of Sally Ellyson.

Pasted Graphic 16

Section A Melody

[audio:http://musicvstheater.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/A-Section.mp3|titles=A Section]

It’s sparse and gorgeous, wringing expression from a reach to the sixth scale degree (A to G) and then a fall from either the major third or the blues third (E to C or Eb to C). Note the change in harmony and harmonic rhythm in the last two measures. The pace of the harmonic changes is slowed by half and we hear the seventh scale degree for the first time, a flatted seventh in the backbone, the characteristic modal sound of much folk music. These two measures are both a cadential pause and a foreshadowing of musical material to come.

At this point the stage is set for what I think is the real magic of the piece, the transition into the B section, the material that takes this from a pretty little song to something unspeakably beautiful. It starts with a restatement of the A section, same ostinato  same harmonic backbone, but when it gets to those last two measures, where before we took a cadential pause, the melody breaks out into new heights:

Pasted Graphic 14

B section

[audio:http://musicvstheater.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/B-Section.mp3|titles=B Section]

Gah! It gets me every frickin time. It’s magic! What makes this work? There’s the big seventh leap to a whole other register of her voice (stunning in any register), and this is the first time the melody has that flatted seventh (Bb) which was only teased at in the initial statement of the A section. But for me, the thing that really makes a difference is the slowing down of that harmonic rhythm. The open fifths in the bass are held for every two beats now as opposed to changing each beat, which makes the whole thing open up and feel vast and expansive.

Some melodic details worth pointing out, the G in ‘every’ in the first measure is the first real accented dissonance in the entire piece and it feels like so much heartache, landing right on beat three, emphasizing the slowed down chord changes. The B section consists of the same two measure melody repeated three times. And on that third time there’s a variation, a reach up to the appoggiatura D on ‘night’, which is the climax of this section (and the song). Then there’s another cadential breath, which parallels the last two measures of the initial A statement.

It’s worth noting that melodically, everything in this song moves by either leap or by whole step. The only time we see half steps at all is the slide from the bluesy Eb to D on the way to C and that’s more of a gesture than a melodic idea. In the melody, there are NO leading tones and NO ascending half steps. Nowhere. Not once. There is, however, one pseudo leading tone harmonically, the A in the bass that finishes each two bar phrase and leads into the Bb that starts each phrase that keeps the motion going throughout the section.

That’s the core of the song. There are certainly many other observations that could be made about the orchestration of the piece, the Es in the cello that sail through every other measure of the B section (1:10), the magical addition of the celeste with the piano playing the fifths an octave higher during the final verse (2:17), the beautiful descending piano scale that brings us into the final B section(2:46). But these are more production/arrangement decisions and not so much compositional ideas. The guts of this piece are a pure exercise in restraint, proportion, and making the right moments count. Certainly something worth considering when trying to write music that people respond to.

25

May 2015
17:05

I May Be a Douchebag (aka noise, criticism, and the New Music Gathering)

The New Music Gathering rolled into San Francisco this past weekend. Founded by Brooklyn stalwarts Danny Felsenfeld, Matt Marks, Lainie Fefferman, and Mary Kouyoumdjian, it was equal parts symposium, festival, and gab fest for composers, performers, and devotees of that amorphous non-genre we’re calling New Music.

The festival is, necessarily, a very large tent. In a field that’s always trying to expand its audience, it’s considered a bad idea to speak ill of another composer’s work, even if it’s not remotely to your aesthetic tastes. If we’re all struggling to get our music heard, we’re better off working together rather than tearing each other down. In the panel on new music criticism, Matt Marks said he could understand a beat writer slamming a piece of his, they’re required to review things even if they don’t like them. But if a blogger goes out of their way to write a bad review, well, in the words of journalist Joelle Zigman, that blogger is, in fact, a douchebag.

I’m not so sure. As someone who’s written quite a bit about pieces that I’ve found lacking, I’d like to think I’m not simply doing so as an exercise in douchebaggery. Rather, I’m doing my best to explore and understand the space. What is it about the piece that I’m finding lacking? What could have been different? Is it a failing of the artist? Is it a matter of taste? In the end, what do I value as a consumer of the arts, and where does this piece fall in the grand spectrum of things I’ve experienced. A thoughtful, honest, well considered response to a work can be a gift, even if it’s not an enthusiastic rave.

Case in point: there was quite a bit of music performed this weekend that I did not get at all. Many performances were noise explorations, without any of the traditional musical considerations of harmony, rhythm, or pulse, that left me alternating between boredom and annoyance. Based on my knowledge of the people who created it, and the people who seemed to genuinely enjoy it, I have to believe that there is truly some intellectual and/or aesthetic pleasure to be derived from this work, but it is entirely beyond me how to find it. It’s just not my bag.

I’ve been wrestling with why this is. Why is it that I’m perfectly happy watching long stretches of theater that defy any sort of rational comprehension (e.g. Richard Foreman), but if it’s sound exploration, I clock out at around 10 minutes? This weekend, while being confronted by the protracted drone of an electronically distorted minor second, I developed a pet theory: Maybe this is a function of my (oft maligned, yet occasionally insightful) Meyers-Briggs type, specifically my place on the S-N axis.

In Meyers-Briggs speak, a senser experiences the world more with their five senses and an intuit-er experiences the world through a layer of intellectual abstraction. I am ALLLLL the way over on the N side of things. I’m looking for patterns, for larger structures, for recurring themes and connections. Screw the tree, however lovely, and show me the damn forrest! Perhaps people who are ALLLLL the way over on the S side of things are better at reveling in the aural experience of the moment. They’re less concerned about the ‘where’ and ‘why’ and fascinated by the ‘what’. While I’m annoyed by not being able to find any structure or meaning in a sustained minor second, the senser is digging the experience of a shifting, gritty dissonance just sitting there.

This may be completely reductive, but it’s all I got right now. I’d need to hear more from folks who really dig the whole noise exploration side of the new music world. I’m all for keeping a large tent, let’s leave room for the extremes, but I think it’s telling that my favorite piece of the weekend, Samuel Carl Adams’s Shade Studies, sat right in the middle of the S-N axis. Relatively conventional harmonies satisfy the intuit-ers desire for structure, while the sustained, shimmering resonances allow the senser to bask in the layers of overtones that the harmonies created. That’s the kind of work that gets me excited, interested, engaged, and, ultimately, makes me want to create work of my own.

Who Watches the Watchers Watch? – Review: The Source

The Source, an opera oratorio meditation on the Bradley/Chelsea Manning/Wikileaks scandal is not at all what I expected it to be, and that’s a good thing. Composer Ted Hearne takes a ripped from the headline subject and treats it with a probing intelligence and artistry that largely ignores the low-hanging, and ultimately flavorless fruit that would tempt a ‘war is bad’ polemicist. Instead, the piece is a bounty of contemplations, and, like the volumes of information Manning unleashed, difficult to summarize or reduce. Amongst the ideas explored: identity, anonymity, what it is to watch, what it is to be watched, the nature of secrecy, the ubiquitous nature of information and popular culture, the difference between public information and private information, the difference between how you see yourself and how others see you, the difference between raw information and processed information, the tension between a lone voice and a crowd of voices, gender, culpability for one’s actions, culpability for actions carried out in your name. This is less a piece about an event as it is a piece about what it is to be a person in an increasingly connected, flexible, intrusive world. It may well be the first transhuman song cycle…

The music is unlike any I have ever heard. Heavily amplified and processed, many movements borrow liberally from popular music instrumentations and conventions, lending an immediate appeal despite the complexity of the writing. Autotune is used liberally throughout, the most effective use of the effect I’ve experienced. In addition to the robotic, digitalized sheen it lent, it allowed for the singers to perform impossibly complex duets with themselves, notably in [we called for illumination at 1630], where the solo voice, accompanied by its own digital simulacra, builds to an impassioned crush of tone clusters. The quartet of singers (Melissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody) were uniformly phenomenal as were all the musicians involved. Beth Morrison has again managed to assemble a remarkable group of collaborators.

The text of the movements (thoughtfully curated by Mark Doten) alternate between excerpts from the material Manning leaked, media coverage of the scandal, and private chats between Manning and Adran Lamo, the former hacker who ended up betraying Manning’s trust. Designed by Jim Findlay and Daniel Fish, the audience is placed in seats evenly distributed throughout the space, half of the audience watching the other half. The room is surrounded by screens, upon which is projected large heads of people watching and reacting, although it’s not clear exactly to what. The singers are distributed amongst the audience, sometimes lit, sometimes in darkness. We watch them watching us watching the screens watching… us?: an uneasy ouroboros of observation.

Anyone with a trace of empathy will be affected by watching faces of those obviously affected themselves, even without any exact knowledge of what the source of that emotion is. In conjunction with vocal music that is somehow plaintive in its dispassion (an effect also achieved by David Lang’s Pulitzer winning Little Match Girl Passion), and at times ecstatically layered, it is hard not to be overwhelmed, transformed, as if we are experiencing an erasing of boundaries, an ever so slight dissolution of self, a glimpse of a collective mind. As the last notes faded, I was convinced of the unmitigated success of the evening…

(ahem. SPOILER ALERT…)

But while the composition may have been over, the performance wasn’t. The director saw fit to add a coda. Without comment or explanation, the screens showed the collective audience the footage that the projected faces had all been responding to, raw footage of a military strike outside of Baghdad that resulted in the death of two Reuter’s correspondents.

My first reaction was that this was a colossal misstep, that it reduced the entire evening’s experience to the brain dead “war is bad” moralizing that I had feared. And I’m certain that for many an audience member, that’s exactly as it should be. But upon further reflection (and I have been reflecting on it for many hours now), one’s response to the footage, unedited and largely un-notated, says much more about oneself than it does about the footage or the rightness or wrongness of the events that it (allegedly?) portrays. You’ve spent the prior hour awash in mediated, transformed, vicarious, communal experience. With this stark coda, you’re confronted with the unprocessed world and left alone with your response to it. Now yours is the face on the screen. Without the coda, I would have likely been on my feet, applauding the night’s events. With it, the entire room sat in stunned silence as the lights came up. It was several minutes before a light smattering of unwelcomed applause broke us from our respective solitary confinements, and even then, not very successfully.

I’m still wrestling with this piece. I want to hear it again. Soon. It’s moving, daring, difficult, and perhaps even important. With or without the coda, there is something to be learned here, something to be understood. Like knowledge that can’t be unlearned, the continued evolution of the very concept of privacy is a door that humanity will soon be unable to close.

25

Oct 2014
14:10

Review: Hydrogen Jukebox

While much of the opera world is focusing on the behind the scenes drama at the Met, now would be a good time to take a look at the smaller, more intimate opera companies in your back yard, the ones that are doing amazing work with a teensy fraction of the resources available to the big houses. Here in the Bay Area, the resilient West Edge Opera company (formerly Berkeley Opera) has compressed its entire season into a summer festival whose programming reads like a page from the small opera company’s guide to staying viable in an increasingly dire environment. It includes a reimagined warhorse (Puccini’s La bohème), a tuneful and accessible work from a living composer (Jake Heggie’s The End of the Affair), and a more experimental work from a pair of american giants (Philip Glass’s setting of Ginsburg’s poetry, Hydrogen Jukebox). The productions are all done in a non-traditional space, the airy (and heavily windowed) atrium of the Ed Roberts Campus, right above the Ashby Bart Station, and this determined company tackles the ensuing lighting and acoustic challenges head on.

I was able to see the final dress rehearsal of Hydrogen Jukebox, and found the production a testament to what a small company can do. Despite my ambivalence around Glass and Ginsburg, who somehow manage to be simultaneously too much and too little for my tastes, I was won over by the appealing cast and imaginative and resourceful staging. Bay Area stage stalwart Howard Swain plays a non-singing narrator role, providing a worldly wise counterpoint to the fresh-faced sextet of young singers enjoying the fruits and pits of post war, pre-millenial America. War, drugs, sex, and the search for enlightenment are recurring themes in a plotless review as our modern crew of bohemians cross the country via plane, train, and green automobile, responding to the daily news, invoking the dark lord of capitalism, and, surprisingly often, taking their shirts off. Tenor Jonathan Blalock (who was fantastic in Prototype’s Paul’s Case in January) and bass Kenneth Kellogg have been brought in from the east coast, but the rest of the excellent cast is local. Their performances and Elkhanah Pulitzer‘s staging elevate Glass’s music and Ginsbug’s poetry into a rewarding night of theater.

West Edge Opera is a sterling example of a regional company doing remarkable work. As the Bay Area continues to struggle with its artistic identity in the face of an onslaught of internet fueled fortunes with uncertain priorities and values, we would be wise to support this worthwhile institution.

 

26

Jul 2014
18:07

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.

24

May 2014
12:05

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.

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23

May 2014
11:05

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.

 

 

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May 2014
10:05