Tag Archives: music

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

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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.

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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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Thoughts on Robert Ashley’s “That Morning Thing”

Composer Robert Ashley’s “opera” (experimental performance piece is a more appropriate name, although if an opera is a multifaceted convolution of music, text, and motion, I suppose this is an opera) That Morning Thing, produced for the first time in 40 years at The Kitchen as part of the Performa 11 biennial, is among theContinue ReadingContinue Reading

One Response to Thoughts on Robert Ashley’s “That Morning Thing”

  1. David Rodwin says:

    Goddamn I wish I’d seen this. “Now Eleanor’s Idea: Improvement” is one of my favorite opera recordings (and the reason I sought out Amy X), and while I’ve met Mr. Ashley (at Princeton of all places) I’ve still never seen a fully staged performance. It sounds like he succeeded in the realm I consider worthy of any artistic endeavor. He made an impact you might remember for a very long time. Much like the first time I saw John Moran perform “Mathew in The School of Life”. At The Kitchen. Of course. Glad to see they’re keeping up the tradition.

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A new unit of time: The Wagner

After a full evening of writing music, I am proposing a new unit of time. The Wagner (abbreviation Wg). One Wagner is equal to one thousand minutes, approximately the length of the entire Ring Cycle. Here are some useful conversions: 1 day = 1.4 Wagners 1 year = 511.35 Wagners 1 minute = 1 milliWagnerContinue Reading

One Response to A new unit of time: The Wagner

  1. Delightful!

    So by logical extension, 255.675 Wagners (Wg) = 1 Friedman unit (fU)

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ViolaGate! Mini-riot erupts during piece for viola and electronics

Well, perhaps not rioting, but there was some pretty spirited heckling during JHNO’s performance at last night’s Longer Burning concert at The Royce Gallery presented by Pamela Z. Details are sketchy, but apparently in the middle of a rather loudly amplified piece, two audience members started complaining about the music even more loudly. One startedContinue Reading

79 Responses to ViolaGate! Mini-riot erupts during piece for viola and electronics

  1. […] ViolaGate! by Brian M. Rosen via Music vs. Theatre […]

  2. vibi says:

    A rose is a rose is a rose. And a jerk is a jerk, I don’t care how old, disabled or “respected” he is in the wee little bubble of musical elitism he roams.

    I’ve never in my life ever heard the name Bernard Zaslav before hearing about his boorish behavior. I have, by contrast, known and respected John Eichenseer’s work since 1999. What I’m seeing from my seemingly polarized point of view is a very small handful of people who are trying to vocally positioned themselves as not only the arbiters of what constitutes viola music, of all things, but of what a performer should and shouldn’t do on stage.

    The musical universe is very, very big. If a man is “standing up for new work”, and at the same time, claiming to define it, I don’t see how it’s even possible to do anything but snicker behind his back, which is what fans of JHNO’s work are doing. I would suggest that Mr. Zaslav expand his musical horizons beyond the myopic if he is indeed “standing up for new work”, because he’s missing the boat entirely.

    ….which is, I should say, entirely fine for him if that’s what he chooses. We don’t all have to be on the same boat. But fer chrissake, sit down and shut up and don’t assume you speak for everyone when you have a humble human opinion.

    What is completely beyond my comprehension is how someone could be such a champion of music and yet have the gall to interrupt a performance. ANY performance. The arrogance and self-centeredness this act involves is indefensible.

    Apparently there has been an apology, yet all I’ve read so far is more self-centeredness, even from this man’s supporters. John’s reaction, though extreme, was entirely understandable, given the amount of courage it takes to even BE on a stage.

  3. Glad to hear of the apology– good move my friend. Certainly seemed appropriate.
    Yes, oh so fascinating discussion…I however entered this a little late in the game to chime in with my passionate personal opinions (and I love drama, don’t get me wrong). Appreciated the event, the passion, and the discussion that followed

    — What is music? what is ego? Yes, so much to ponder here:)

    All the best

  4. Wow! A privilege be a party to such a fascinating discussion and to have witnessed such a singular, even notorious, event, so even this late in the game I can’t resist weighing in with my two cent’s worth in the form of an email letter written to friends abroad describing the incident and the entire concert. As I’m not a musician, critic or anything of the sort my description below may be inaccurate or poorly informed.

    Hello Patti & Joel

    I realize you’ve got better things to do while in France than read emails
    (…) but I have to describe last night’s extraordinary concert, about which several people in the audience remarked that they literally would never forget it.

    The first three pieces, performed by Del Sol Quartet founder and viola player Charlton Lee were in a more unremarkable vein although none lacked musical interest. The opening piece by Edmund Campion used a signal from the viola and a common computer patch to derive an electronic accompaniment that echoed the viola part in a wildly transformed way and produced some nice interplay, and the other two were for unaltered solo viola. One by a Persian composer used a traditional non-western scale in a modern piece that might ruffle a few feathers back home (…)

    The drama came in an untitled improvisation for viola and electronics by JHNO (John Eichenseer) an itinerant music technologist and recording artist with a curriculum as impressive as it is varied, from busking in Turkey to providing music software for Dolby, Laurie Anderson and Bork. His piece featured the same digital looping and other feedback techniques in conjunction with complementary signal processing influenced by simple MIDI controllers used in practically all the electronic pieces I’ve heard over the past couple of weeks. But where most performers kept the signal processing under strict control to keep the real-time result from drifting into uncharted waters, JHNO’s confidence with the technical set-up made it possible to allow the computer patch to take on a life of its own, producing blooping tones with unrestricted dynamics arising from the feedback and resonance of the amplified viola. About halfway through the piece an older man in the front row shouted “brava” and began clapping loudly for an extended period. This seemed odd, but I thought if spontaneous applause at unscheduled points is allowed in jazz and opera, then why not in new music? It seemed like a good idea to me. This occurred at a point where the performer had gone up a whole tone on the viola and when an earlier passage looped back it sounded a bit like the slow exploration of a scale at the beginning of an Indian raga, so I thought the man might have been applauding a subtle bit of trickery but I noticed that a concert assistant worked her way around to have a brief word with him.

    Several minutes later he did it again, but this time JHNO threw his viola to the floor causing the bridge and some electronic hookups to go flying off. Before anyone could take this in he dashed out through a side curtain. Long legged and gangly, he covered the distance in only two steps and disappeared. The patch played on admirably for at least five minutes longer without any new input and as it seemed to have been programmed to degenerate and diminish the old signal it slowly looped downward in a decrescendo that I thought was particularly beautiful. Then someone came on stage and touched a few things so I couldn’t be absolutely sure whether it had come to a stop by itself, but I think it had.

    No one in the stunned audience applauded until a young man came to the front and said “I’m a violist and I think we should actually applaud this piece.” Then lively applause broke out while the man who had applauded previously was saying “I’m a violist too and this is a travesty.” He was heading for his 80’s with a wife to match and his white hair was carefully fashioned in a European style that suggested a prominent musician or soloist, leaving the face clear and exposing a strong profile.

    His bizarre interventions hadn’t at all interfered with my enjoyment of the intriguing music, but a large part of the audience was indignant and started to sound menacing. As it was now intermission the disturbance served as a catalyst for a diverse and interesting audience disposed to exchange views with strangers but who may have needed an ice breaker like this to really get the ball rolling. Pamela Z was remarkably cool, correctly reckoning that allowing the man to remain would cause a much lesser disturbance to the event that having him thrown out. And she knew her audience well. There was some tough talk in several quarters but it went no further than that.

    The concert was exceeding well programmed and second half was even stronger. Hank Dutt opened with a solo viola piece reworked from a Bach cello suite or similar and its beautiful musical lines showed off his stunning technique. I certainly hadn’t remotely expected to see this level of virtuosity in a popularly priced concert. I had heard Kronos in the old days but I imagine thirty years of intensive practicing can do a lot for your technique. And subsequent pieces showed that technique was perhaps the least part of his musicianship. There was a prelude to a raga with Pamela Z playing a drone on a harmonium and JHNO, having returned after a walkabout to cool down, both of them sitting on pillows, harmonizing on a droning Indian string instrument and displaying, as we say, una cara de pocos amigos. His antagonist, still sitting front row center, applauded this and all other pieces while strictly observing proper decorum. The piece I liked best followed, composed by ex-Kronos member Joan Jeanrenaud. It used looping to build simple nearly minimal melodic lines into an increasingly denser polyphonic blend with harmonies that conveyed a range of emotions in a very poignant and beautiful way.

    Pamela Z then performed a piece using a proximity device to cue and control very clean, transparently recorded samples from the inside of what sounded like a very big piano. These elements elegantly accompanied a looped vocal mix resulting from a few discreet and pure vocal sounds.

    The finale for me was another high point. According to the program it was intended to bring together all the musicians, but JHNO evidently wasn’t in the mood. Pamela introduced it by saying it would be an improvised trio with two violas, totally unplanned. But what a level of improvisation! You would have thought they had been working together on this sort of thing for years, and perhaps they had. Three very strong improvisers, totally attuned to the interplay, and a trio is a particularly good number[of musicians] for this. On the level of the best jazz musicians, and it showcased the broader musical qualities of Duff who proved be just as good an improviser as he was a virtuoso performer, maybe better.

    (…) much as I enjoyed this exceptional concert what will always make it special for me was the chance to witness a sort of artistic proto-mini-riot, tame though it might have been. The thing is that it is so hard to epaté les bourgeoise these days, in fact they’re into a lot of things that might shock us.

    How exciting it would have been to witness the premiere of Rite of Spring or the fuss over the works of Berlioz, Strauss R, Satie, Antheil, Berlioz or Ravel. According to Wikipedia in our times this has notably happened only to Heinze (68) and Reich (73).

    So a great concert at a pleasing price that included wine and snacks. And I find the generic Californians taste much better when you don’t have to pay for them. I had 2 glasses.

    Enjoy gai Paris (…)


  5. […] stage, once he had untangled himself from the curtains—became know locally as The Viola Riot AKA Viola Gate. When one particularly irate member of the audience repeatedly accused Zaslav of being nothing more […]

  6. Anthony says:

    Pamela Z!!! Your music is THE BEST! I’m a huge fan, and go to CU to boot!

  7. jhno says:

    Just as a postscript to this historical record, I just wrote a short post that contains an audio fragment from this concert, and a longer recording that I made last year which I quite like – all in the under-explored genre of ambient doom metal viola:


    All the best!

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Tweaking a masterpiece: Assassins

Few, if any, musicals mine darker creative ore than Assassins. By humanizing a group of disenfranchised, semi-stable malcontents, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman tell a story of the American Nightmare, a haze of anger, frustration, and humiliation that can, apparently, only be relieved by killing the President of the United States. It’s long been inContinue ReadingContinue Reading

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SF Girls Chorus, Bach, and Me

Next Thursday and Saturday (June 9th and 11th) the superb San Francisco Girls Chorus will be performing a remarkable concert of new works including an arrangement of JS Bach’s famous Wachet Auf Cantata 140 for chorus and string quartet by… me. Cecily Ward from the Cypress String Quartet approached me a couple of months agoContinue Reading

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A 1-bit rave (with no dancing)

When in New York last month I was lucky enough to be invited to the advanced opening of Ryoji Ikeda’s mammoth video/audio installation the transfinite at the Park Avenue Armory. It’s a 40′ high screen, both imposing and overwhelming. The front side, entitled test pattern is a series of aggressive strobing black and white patternsContinue Reading

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Kushner, Communism, Serialism, and Obsolescence

Tony Kushner’s epic play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures (currently playing at the Public Theater) is a hyper intellectualized allegory disguised as a family drama about a clan of hyper-intellectuals. The action centers around the patriarch, Gus, a lifetime communist who has lived long enough toContinue ReadingContinue Reading

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