Category Archives: Essays and Analysis

24 Hours With Taylor Mac

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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!

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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.Continue Reading

One Response to Hem – Half Acre – Analysis of a perfect thing

  1. Nolan Love says:

    Great analysis, Brian. The combination of puerile innocence in simplicity and repetition along with the world-wise bluesy accidentals in the melody give it a lovely balance. I’m also loving the clarinet which has it’s own mournful timbre to counter the sparkle of the other instruments. Good stuff!

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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 fieldContinue Reading

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Quentin Letts Shows Us What Ugly Is

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 atContinue Reading

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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 wasteContinue Reading

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Four Laughs Per Minute: What Music Can Learn From Comedy

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,Continue Reading

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Einstein and Moby and LINES, Oh My!

It’s been a big week for massive sweeping ambitious works of art. I read Cloud Atlas in preparation for the release of the movie (book is great, movie less so), saw Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick at the SF Opera, watched Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and capped the week offContinue Reading

One Response to Einstein and Moby and LINES, Oh My!

  1. David Rodwin says:

    I have so many thoughts about Einstein that I’m going to do a vlog about it, but for starters, because I’ve become accustomed to listening to the score without seeing the production, I forgot how funny if not silly Robert Wilson can be when at his best. Simultaneously, the Glass, Childs and Wilson are so shockingly on the same page in their approach to minimalism that I was blown away by the coherence and cohesion of vision. I’ve not heard many critics talk about this and perhaps it’s because critics rarely have to collaborate, artists do, so they have a lesser appreciation for something like that. And to have done this decades ago when there was little foundation for what they were striving for and to all be perfectly in sync in their vision leaves me dumbfounded.

    Oh, yeah, and it was all so staggeringly beautiful, I literally wept.

    (The speech about the lovers is so traditional in its story telling and devastating in the context of the post-modern insanity swirling around it)

    AND I was blown away by Kate Moran who has taken over Lucinda Childs’ part in the “knee plays.” She brought a whimsical, wry, human, playfulness and verve to the part. Lucinda, while one of the creators kept her performance so cold it was frozen. Kate has her formality, but she infuses it with irrepressible life. Frankly, I’m in love with her. I need to meet her. Work with her. The works. OK, internet, introduce us.

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Why bother composing?

Jeffrey Parola sounds kinda bummed in his latest blog post. He outlines the all too familiar plight of the contemporary concert music composer (no appreciation, money, and little hope of either). He then earnestly asks: Why do we bother? In my mind the answer is simple. Creation of music that didn’t exist before HAS toContinue Reading

3 Responses to Why bother composing?

  1. Well said. I have to agree with you. Composing as a profession may, sadly, be diminishing in relevance, and perhaps permanently. Supply and Demand. But writing music will always be relevant to the writer. And if it isn’t then why write at all? If the music is in your head, the exercise of expelling it, writing it out, realizing it fully, hearing it realized, should be the greatest reward. Everything else is largely ego and (false) expectation.

  2. Alexander Frank says:

    Exactly right. I imagine people write music for many reasons, but there is an almost certain trade-off regardless of your motivation. If you compose for your own edification, for the pure joy that only musical creation can bring, you must accept that any fame or compensation will be incidental. A composer of talent who desires recognition or money would be better served writing music geared toward radio play or scoring for film.

    If I strove for many years, writing exactly the music I wanted and loved, and it failed to gain any sort of recognition, I would certainly be discouraged. But the frustration would be directed toward others; more of an incredulous sadness that they aren’t affected by my music the way I am. For me, a (amateur) composer who is at least capable of conceiving and writing out novel music that I genuinely enjoy, to merely be given a perfect recording of every piece I ever wrote, even if I had to listen each in solitude, would be enough. The music is its own reward.

  3. Ben Phelps says:

    Well said indeed. Couldn’t agree more. How many composers have I met who I strongly suspect don’t like listening to their own music? Most of them. I simply can’t understand it.

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The worst music ever written

A couple of weeks ago I recorded an episode of VoiceBox with Chloe Veltman about the worst vocal music ever written. While preparing for the show I did my best to try to analyze the nature of “badness”, perhaps even creating a taxonomy of characteristics that contribute to bad music. The goal was to notContinue Reading

One Response to The worst music ever written

  1. David Rodwin says:

    Oh,I’m smart enough to get it. I just don’t want it. 🙂

    So, you can have The Shaggs all to yourself.

    (BTW, did you see the musical Gunnar and my friend Joy did of (The Philosophy…”)

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Is Sondheim Classical?

The Australian Broadcasting Company recently released a list of the “Top 100 Classical Pieces of the 20th Century.”  As with any list, there is much fodder for discussion, debate and derision (judging from this list, Stravinsky apparently stopped composing after 1913). Blogger, pianist, and educator Elissa Milne was particularly disturbed by the complete omission of Sondheim’sContinue ReadingContinue Reading

4 Responses to Is Sondheim Classical?

  1. Meh. It feels like splitting hairs to me to try to make fine distinctions between what is “classical music” and what isn’t. The way the term is used is so fuzzy that it’s pointless to try to define its borders; as soon as we succeed in defining “classical music” in a way that makes it possible to make these fine distinctions, we are no longer using the word in the way that anyone really uses it.

    It seems to me that, as most people use the term, West Side Story is not classical music. It also seems to me that Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is classical music. But I’d bet that if you asked a thousand people, you wouldn’t get anything like unanimity on either of those points. The term is just too nebulous.

    Oh, well. If you want a language to be logical, you pretty much have to invent it yourself. Living languages sprawl.

    • Brian Rosen says:

      I agree that these distinctions for classification’s sake is a bit pointless, but the thought exercises that accompany such taxonomy can be enlightening. The larger point is that there is SOMETHING different between West Side Story and Sondheim’s work that, for me at least, allows the term “classical” to apply. It’s the figuring out what that something is that is, I hope, interesting and perhaps useful.

  2. I think it’s important for artists to think deeply about what they’re doing, and why. The category thing, not so much.

  3. Jirashimosu says:

    I think that classical is a matter of time rather than matter of style. Let’s give Sondheim’s work a 60 year space and we’ll see what happens.

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