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Think fast

from Tuesday, July1st of the year2014.

Boop!  A strange thing happened today, which is that an article for which I gave an interview in January in Pittsburgh has just now materialized, and I’ve gotten in some mild internet trouble for some of the things I said, which I just wanted to clarify, mainly because it’s interesting how these things have the ability to recycle in strange, unexpected ways, and because the things that seem to have been the most objectionable are, actually, the things I believe in the strongest, but with some caveats.  Also: it feels right to articulate, in my own, typed words, these thoughts as it seems as if my rapid-fire interview is being scrutinized in some detail!  Now, here is the article in question, by Elizabeth Bloom if you care to look at it. Please note that the reason I sat for it was that my chamber opera, Dark Sisters, was being presented by Pittsburgh Opera, and I went out there for a few days to help do press for it, sit in on some rehearsals, etc.  This was in January.  I don’t understand why it has dropped, as it were, six months later.

The first point of clarification: “He thinks, for example, that classical music could learn from how pop uses music software and recording studios. (“I think classical electronic music always sounds like trash,” he said.)”  Now, that is a crazy statement!  I’m not 100% sure what I was referring to, but certainly I can use myself as an example here.  When I first wrote this piece called Keep in Touch, for Nadia and Antony and what essentially amounts to pre-recorded tape, I made the electronic elements myself using basically souped up GarageBand.  It wasn’t until Valgeir Sigurðsson started fondling it that I realized how trashy it sounded; it sounded about as trashy as when you turn on the radio and hear a great song but with MIDI strings. You’re like, “all that money and then this?” I think that the non-classical universe has citizens who simply spend more time in front of electronic instruments and computers, and it is meet and right to ring them up and ask for their counsel and assistance when dabbling in the more plugged-in corners, I think. I certainly wouldn’t dare try it totally alone. In the same way that I spent years in a darkened room basically snuggling with the score to Petrouchka, there are people who spent those same years of their lives making samples, designing synthesizers, sitting in a darkened room of their own. So, that’s what that’s all about; I can’t actually think about any “Classical electronic music” off the top of my head, with the possible exception of Jacob Cooper’s Silver Threads, which you should all buy, and also which came out three months after I said this so obvz I hadn’t heard it, and also which I think sounds great, partially, I imagine, because he rang up Damian Taylor, who, in addition to having the same birthday as I do, is one of the smartest and nicest and most sensitive programmer/engineer/computer types around.  I certainly didn’t have anything else in mind, with the possible exception of those v.v.v.v. early Babbitt pieces that just sound like straight up R2D2, but that’s more funny to me than anything else.  Bleep boop!

Then, a more delicate situation here:

“I’ve always found the best thing to do is to make work that doesn’t have to happen in a huge space. I think it would be fine if major orchestras closed,” he said. “In a lot of cases the halls are too big. I went to see a huge orchestra concert at Avery Fisher Hall, which is an excrescence in New York…and it’s like, let it close. That’s fine; it’ll be fine. They’ll find somewhere else.”

Okay, so this is an example of me saying two things at once, for which: my apologies.  Actually this is three things at once, in a jumble that, I see here, looks really inflammatory and ugly on the page.  What I was trying to say was I was SO excited when there was that three second period when the New York Philharmonic was going to play in Carnegie Hall full time. I’m told the seating capacity is more, which, might be true?  But I guess things in Carnegie always just seem more fun to me, and it sounds great in there, as if each sound was dipped in butter. I don’t like going to Fisher; I literally just don’t like being in there. I can never find the men’s room, the architecture gives me the shiverz. When I gave this interview, I had just been to something — Sibelius and Esa-Pekka and randomly the Mother Goose suite — there, and I hadn’t been in maybe five or six years, and two things happened. First, the orchestra sounded great and LOUD. The horn section was heroically, heroically great in Sibelius 5 and the Salonen concerto was tight and precise. However, I was just shocked by the strange dimensions of the stage, the slight sense that I couldn’t quite hear anything — as if there were a membrane between me and the musicians — the acoustic panels, the very depressing narrow side-areas for donors…don’t front like you haven’t seen those areas. My sense is that if they shut down Fisher for a few years, or moved the orchestra, the Phil itself would still be fine. I’ve seen that ensemble more, I realize here, looking through my calendar, at Symphony Space, in the parks — once even in Queens!  I went to Queens to see the Phil! – than in that hall. They are doing just fine when they go to other spaces and, actually, I buy all of their live recordings on iTunes anyway which sound great. So that’s what that was.  I’ve said maybe six thousand times online, offline etc. that I want the Phil to be awesome because they are my home team orchestra and I want for them to be the most kick-ass orchestra in the world with the most kick-ass hall etc. Again, I apologize for the seemingly flippant/aggressive snippet; it’s not something I would have said today, with the Phil’s neighbors at the Met involved in such a tense and acrimonious negotiation, much of which seems to be playing out in the press and on various blogs and Facebook &c. to the benefit of perhaps nobody.

The final thing I want to say here, which is perhaps more to the point, is that the way music gets paid for is really unknowable to me. I can’t pretend to understand it. In the time that I wrote this blogpost, in fact, a really awful cut to the ENO’s budget in London was announced; I love that company and love working there and with them — it can only be bad news, and yet, they seem to have spun it as potentially okay news?  I tried to follow the Minnesota negotiations and between the paper, Facebook, blogs, in-person conversations — at a certain point I just got so exasperated and frustrated by the idea of this semi-visible world of fighting people messing up our lives — it feels like Zeus and Hera, with their eternal squabbles and jealousies and resentments — people telling half truths, leaking information, good faith and bad faith arguments in the same sentence, with various intermediaries and intercessors throwing incense around. San Diego felt rather the same way; what’s going on at the Met seems the same way. It feels, sometimes, that the adults are fighting and that we’re the kids, cowering in our rooms pretending not to hear. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s fantasized about just running away from home, and trying to find a more direct way to communicate between musicians and audiences, all of whom, I think, are going to figure it out in spite of these crises and inevitable transformations both real, imagined, and somewhere in between. Sometimes, I wonder if a closing doesn’t, in some way, shift energy: has anybody else noticed a wonderful explosion of chamber opera, a heightened attention to the 20-person operation compared to the slightly larger model recently in New York and elsewhere?  I feel like in London I can’t open a door without a brilliant amplified chamber opera popping out; this isn’t to say that it exists to the exclusion of Don Carlo, it’s just a different model.

It seems, though, that many places that have been In Trouble are no longer In Trouble — is that not the case?  Remember turning on the internet during the San Diego thing and it really felt like La Jolla would be a nuclear wasteland by nightfall with zombie opera singers preying on the flesh of the living and gay people sacrificing lambs to a makeshift statue of Maria Callas by that fig tree, and now it all seems to be, more or less, Fine?  Musicians are resilient as anything, and audiences are hungry for music, and I don’t think that has really changed. Audiences are even hungry for orchestral music! They go to see it in parking garages in South London, they go to Carnegie Hall, they go to the Phil. I love writing orchestral music; it is thrilling to write. It is also crazy; it’s a crazy thing that we do and it’s a crazy thing that it still exists, and I will do everything I can in my power to keep it alive, which, in my case, essentially means writing orchestra music, as is my plan — I’ve got a thing for Philly, a thing for Utah, and I’m giddy at the prospects, and from this point on I will shut up about anybody closing down.

And one final thought, more shop talk than anything else. For young composers, writing an orchestra piece can feel like the ne plus ultra of achievements, the distant summit to climb. As I said, writing for orchestra is amazing and I love it, but it doesn’t have to be for everybody. Think about Steve Reich, for whom you all know I have deep deep love. Homegirl has written, what, two pieces for orchestra (The Four Sections, and Three Movements, one movement of which is repurposed)?  I guess The Desert Music counts too but that works way better in the small, Alarm Will Sound edition.  In a long-ass career, the pieces of his that are the most defining, the closest, I would argue, to the heart of the artist, are the ones for small amplified ensemble with voices pre-recorded on a tape or live or both: Different Trains, The Cave. Then, looking back another third of a century, the early works — the ones that made him a sort of household (u know what I mean) name, are for his friends: Music for 18, Music for a Large Ensemble.  I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but his is a career — as, I would argue, is Philip Glass’s — that was built on a foundation of knowing, in some fundamental way, that orchestras weren’t going to want to commission them ever ever, as I’m sure it must have seemed in the 1960′s and 70′s. Even though that changed for Philip — and he would be the first to tell you that it was a surprise, and indeed, the result of having made his name writing music outside of that tradition —  the music of his that, for me, bears a more intimate touch is the music he wrote for his friends. Going back to what I said in Pittsburgh  (“I’ve always found the best thing to do is to make work that doesn’t have to happen in a huge space”), I think the advice is solid. Knowing how to make music despite the Arts Council is practical and sensible. It doesn’t mean that in such a making, one is saying that DIY music is the only way forward; it’s just a different skill-set. Writing a chamber opera doesn’t mean you don’t believe in grand; writing a piece of electronic music doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned the viola.

The experience of writing a new piece for orchestra is very scary; I’ve had some wild rides where you find yourself quite bumped up against the wall of the way the week in which your piece is premiered is scheduled. Things they don’t teach you in school turn into the biggest logistical obstacles: unexpectedly reduced strings for the Mozart means a tech call to move the chairs for your piece which means 20 minutes less rehearsal which means… and so on.  I’ve written before about the craziness of recordings in these situations.  It is very high-stress and I still get “first day of school” jitters in front of orchestras and usually need to sit down in a dark room after the first rehearsal, with a serious glass of wine. I have fought fought fought fought fought for more rehearsal time for new music; I have embarrassed myself, I have totally nailed or messed up the Confucian rituals of obeisance and deference some groups need, I have had nightmares about it, I have, in the thirty-nine seconds a composer is given to make comments, said clever things and blunt things and stupid things and funny things and things that fell flat. All of that having been said, there is nothing like that first moment when things start to emulsify in the room with the orchestra, when the little idea you had at your tiny desk has bloomed into this pulsing, shimmering thing, beautiful and ugly and surprising. It’s the Sorcerer’s Apprentice but strangely sanctioned — you’ve been allowed to manipulate seventy plus people, with their years of training and musicianship, into this twelve-minute distillation and explosion of an idea. It’s an experience I wish everybody could have, and it’s an opportunity for composers that I will fight for, both online and off.

I am wishing you all a very happy 4th of July weekend and a joyful Canada Day if that’s ur bag.

PS I stand by the record store thing 100%. Nothing freaked me out more than having to go into the classical — or god4bid opera  — section of Tower Records by Lincoln Center. I haven’t bought music clothed in years and I love it.

Nico Muhly Talks Coldplay’s Ghost Stories

from Thursday, May22nd of the year2014.

This is a repost from The Talkhouse, originally published May 20, 2014.

I have always liked Coldplay. There is something inherently honest-seeming about their faces, and I liked how once they got paid, they could afford to steal (in the most loving way) from other bands who also got paid — there is something much less offensive, I think, about people who own homes with nice linens and stuff taking artistic cues from other people who own homes with nice linens. For that reason, when I smell a texture taken pretty explicitly from Sigur Rós or Arcade Fire, it feels like a lateral homage rather than the ugly “who did it first” business we suffer through in the discourses surrounding borrowing from people who are, perhaps, slightly less paid.

What I like about this new album, Ghost Stories, the band’s sixth, is how unchallenging it is. I don’t mean this in a snarky way; it is unchallenging in the way a conversation with an old friend always has an ease and fluency to it. The rhymes are so symmetrical, so square, that you can predict the end of the line based on the first word alone. The musical phrases are similar: listen to the hook that begins “Ink” — it’s a little curlicue of a phrase that could only do one thing, and it does it confidently. Very satisfying.

The album begins with “Always in My Head,” which features one of these Lovingly Borrowed from Sigur Rós textures, a sort of processed thing that contains voices (did they use one of them little Casio keyboards that enjoy such cachet in certain circles?), and then a looped guitar with delay over a plodding bass line. It unfolds perfectly, like a row house: there is no other place for the toilet to go, so obviously it goes there, at the top of the stairs. There is no other thing to do at the chorus than to bring back that guitar loop, so here it is! It is very satisfying. Incidentally, if you squint at the cover art, it looks like a very specific piece of Sigur Rós merch; I think I have it on a tote bag somewhere.

In “Magic,” we get a taste of electronic drums and a bass moving in 10ths, and gloriously, the voice is presented in an unaffected and straightforward way, and we can really hear the grain of Chris Martin’s voice, by which I mean all the little tics and rasps that make us human. This is a welcome moment. I sort of can’t bear anybody setting the word “you,” which is difficult in the English language, but we seem to be stuck with it. Martin tries, here, several variations, ranging from “yeh” to “yoo” to the slightly Texan possibilities of “yew.” He performs a moist sandhi on “but you,” rendering it slightly more like “butt chew,” for what it’s worth. “You” is a hard word to sing.

We have talked about “Ink” already.

I’m really unclear about the merits of calling your song “True Love.” It has processed beds of strings, and a pointedly uneven vocal performance — Martin approaches the microphone from various angles, and shows his work, and one gets a sense of the challenges of his range in the slightly liquid phrase endings. They start high, in the falsetto range, and slither down through various passages and rooms and end in a conversational baritone. It’s sort of a handbook of how to use one’s entire range. There is a string arrangement that is disappointingly on the nose: it moves at exactly the same time as the chords, so why is it there? It’s like having a giant picture of your body printed on your body instead of wearing clothes.

“Midnight” begins with a looped and rhythmic texture. The voice comes in like that Imogen Heap song we all bought the shit out of — what was that called, “Hide and Seek?” Love that song. “Midnight” is super exciting to me because it sort of doesn’t do anything — there isn’t really a structure so much as a sequence of concentric circles surrounding the same chord. At the midway point, there is a thickening, a tumescence, over wordless singing in the stratosphere, which then expertly melts back into the polyphonic (Imogen) heap of textures, and then, obviously, straight into four-on-the-floor, but so satisfying. An arpeggiated synth! We are at the kluhb! Sidechain gate on the processed hi-hat — it’s all here. A build and a breakdown: they’ve done everything right here. It’s ritualistic and understated, and banks not on raw power but on a slow accumulation of elements.

“Another’s Arms” feels like it sits in precisely the wrong range of Martin’s voice. I can’t quite ever tell what he’s saying — sitting on the couch watching TV? — and he’s affected too wide a range of what sound like American pronunciations of words to have the sentiment land correctly. “Me” comes out as “Meh,” and quite right, too; the effect is bland, anonymous, and the exact opposite of the vocal honesty we found in “Magic” and “True Love.”

They appear to have hired either real human beings to play violins near the beginning of “Oceans,” or at least a very expensive sample library of harmonics. I am going to hold my tongue about the success of that arrangement because I’m actually just bitter they didn’t call me; ooh, the thangz I would have done to that song! What I like about this song is that it’s really an acoustic guitar jam with a little sonar ping instead of a snare drum, and the guitar performance is natural and unquantized, which is to say, sometimes it doesn’t align perfectly, and it makes me like it more. Then there is a random electronic looped outro that delivers us directly into:

The festival jammer! “A Sky Full of Stars” is what we’re dealing with here. “‘Cause you’re a sky full of stars/I’m gonna give you my heart.” I mean, that is not a cute lyric. It sounds like the little hooks of inspirational jib-jab that are sung over dance music in the gay clubs: “Keep going/Keep reaching /I believe in u” and things of this nature. The song proceeds in a professionally straightforward way; he wants to die in [our] arms, the electronic beats break down into just a single acoustic guitar. There is good news, though: the vocal performance is delicious. He is absolutely in control of each element of range, technique, volume and vibrato. It’s too bad the lyrics are so gayspirational, though, or, perhaps not gayspirational enough?

The album closes with the enigmatically titled “O,” built on a lovely sequence of piano arpeggios. The piano is played (and recorded) beautifully, and while it is deeply repetitive, it is surprising in its lazy circles: it feels like an organic process slowly unfolding. The arrival of the bass is a welcome grounding effect. The lyrics are dead simple but here take on an almost Japanese obliqueness of image and intent; there are large pauses between the phrases, reminding us that actually the piano is the point of the song. Martin’s voice is actually at its most beautiful here: controlled but fragile, with a warmth and openness that sits in loose counterpoint to the loneliness of the song.

Like I said, I’ve always liked this band. I thought that song “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” was an absolute triumph, and “Reign of Love” is a thing of exquisite beauty. This album is texturally beautiful: they steal from the best. There is a small tragedy in the emotional anonymity of the lyrics, and in the uncommitted sonic landscape as it relates to acoustic instruments: is there not an additional shade to be found from a really turn’t-out string arrangement, or a little mechanism made from pointed flutes? When Martin is singing athletically — as opposed to from the couch in the TV room — he is in top form. It’s comfortable and confident: the voice of an old friend on the phone, a neighborhood bar, a question to which you already know the answer.

Sit on the floor

from Friday, February7th of the year2014.

I’ve been ignoring this space, and I don’t feel great about it. This past few months has been wildly busy, exciting, fun, everything, and I had initially thought I would feel the spirit to blog about the entire process of mounting Two Boys at the Met, but in late August, after our first week of tech, I realized that I wasn’t going to have the energy. The biggest difficulty of the process for me was actually figuring out what precisely it was that I was going to do with myself during all the rehearsals. The score was — for the most part — correct. I had absolute trust in the casting, and my theory is always that singers who learn something in a certain way “own” the piece much more than I can at my desk, and that their instincts are more correct sometimes than the score. Craig had created such a fool-proof libretto that the intentions were super clear, even when they were meant to be deliberately unclear, if that makes sense. Under Bart’s direction, they opened up, over the rehearsal process, into being able to make decisions in character: it’s a fabulous thing to watch. So, my role was avuncular rather than paternal. I sat there, but tried to look a little bit distracted so as not to feel like a vengeful harpy, obsessing over the score. I made encouraging grunts and muffled noises, and tried, as best I could, to promote a calm and productive team spirit. I’d go and get coffee for anybody who wanted it. I performed tech support on Alice Coote’s various iDevices. I gossiped with the cover singers, I sat on the floor and poked my head into rehearsals for The Nose. I shewed our design team Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance on YouTube.

People — younger composers, particularly — have asked me what it was Like™. It’s great, basically. There are four thousand external oppressive stressors that try to come and get in the way of progress, rather like a video game. One day it’ll be a sick singer on Facebook. Another day it’ll be a parent or my boyfriend making a silent point of not telling me how they’d read some bad-faith article in the paper, or somebody writing me an email like “congrats on that review!” or “sorry about [the same] review.” Another day, a schedule change that requires four against-the-rush-hour commutes around town. Another day, after we opened, a European opera dude invited himself to my house to tell me how much he disliked the production! Before noon! And I bought bagels! Actually my boyfriend bought bagels. But in the midst of all of this, some extraordinary, ravishing music-making, and all in the presence of the machine (and I use this word as a compliment) of the Met’s technical department. These people are wizards.

The secondary texts — the primary text being the score — of how to run the system of an opera are erotically fascinating: the codes that govern when the set moves, the codes that govern the fast costume change area in the back, the off-stage chorus, the electrician double-checking to make sure the video camera embedded in an onstage cumrag tissue box was still working. When things — as they do — go slightly wrong, there would be delicious, professional, investigations about how to not just get it wrong again, but indeed, how to make it better for the future of this production and other productions. There’s a memory bank, as it were, between shows at the Met that is, for me, as inspiring as the on-stage music making, which is pretty extraordinary itself.

The other thing that I think was unique to this piece and situation is that because it was the first Gelb-era commission, there was a huge matrix of expectations about it and what it Meant. When I was writing the piece, I knew it was going to be a specific and crazy piece. Craig and I designed it to tell that story well; the production is designed to be a delivery system for thatstory. It was not designed to solve a made-up crisis in classical music, it was not designed to attract more young people into the opera house (as if young people are moths, drawn towards a patio light). It was not designed to make any statements about the future of the genre, about the way opera “should” be commissioned or workshopped or not. It was not designed to be an argument for or against presenting work in large spaces or small spaces. It was just, I had hoped, a good show. And is it fair to ask a new piece to be anything other than good, on its own terms? Not to cause a revolution, not to solve the problems online crazypeople think need to be solved. One got the sense that many punters came to it with various other expectations in mind — particularly people In Or Near The Industry. I had to really control myself from asking the designers to project the huge, beautifully typeset phrase It’s Not About You before each act. What is is, indeed, about is a flawed romance between a 16 year-old boy and a 13 year-old boy, forensically analyzed by a woman in her 50’s. These three people circle around one another, opening up little hornets’-nests of online and offline violence and beauty. If I’ve told that story well, I am happy.

Then, I had to do an unreal amount of press. It was fucking insane. It never stopped. I wrote about this before when we did the show in London, although I’ve gotten more aggressive about it of late. My policy is twofold and strict: read nothing, say yes to everything. I will not read anything that’s written about the piece after it’s opened, which means no reviews, ever, at all — even the good ones, if not especially the good ones. The good ones sometimes seemed like people coming over your house for dinner and enthusiastically complimenting everything but the food. One finds, in good reviews, still the dangerous instinct to analyze trends rather than notes, imagined patterns rather than musical ones.

What used to be really difficult about my strategy was that I’d still read reviews of other people’s work, but not my own, which was hypocritical and also made avoiding just stuff about me into a slightly cartoon-like project. Now I just don’t mess with it at all, and you know why? Because nobody knows how to write about music, really. It’s, like, four people, maybe; certainly far fewer people know how to write about music than there are people who know how to write it. It’s a vile little human-centipede situation, reviews and previews, and you realize how silly it is when you listen to the questions people ask. I had a little running tally going, and of hundreds questions I’d be asked in an interview, very very few would be about the notes or the rhythms or even the piece itself. A few would talk about plot points as if we had invented them — as opposed to Reality, which itself had a strong creative input into the plot of the piece. The main focus of a lot of questions was: the Met, the future of opera, the merits of workshops, Peter Gelb, the Met, the Met, the future of opera, the future of the genre, elitism, Young People, ageing audience, all this horseshit buzzword wordsoup; one could almost hear the “think” piece writing itself, along with a subsequent review to reinforce whatever insightful conclusions might have been reached.

If you follow classical music at all, you know that the loudest noises are being made not by composers and musicians (as perhaps should be the case), but by a very special caste of people who like to go into the elevator the rest of us are working in, fart juicily, and then ask whahappen. When you hear their questions for advance press, you register that they’ve already made up their mind about how this two hour thing I wrote relates to a Big Narrative about the future of what essentially amounts to their livelihood. Really, I can’t blame them; if things are going well, if things are alright, if work exists on its own terms, who is going to pay the rent?

What I can do, though, is say yes to every request. I told the Met’s press people to just lay it on, because I trust them and I like them. Obviously, there’s a backlash — you start getting tweets screeching about how it’s such a huge failure that there is so much being written about a new opera, etc., but you have to just ignore (or tease) those people. You also have to ignore/tease the people who want to get all up in one’s grill about ticket sales. It’s like: do you want me to stand on the Lincoln Center Plaza with a sandwich board? I had one person who in one breath would celebrate an orchestra offering cheap seats for young people, and then in the next breath bemoan the fact that the Met had “deeply slashed ticket prices” or whatever because I suck and Peter Gelb Ooga Booga. Té in the wind. Chicopée. Writing about music reads like some combination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and a Sarah Palin interview transcript: that combination of conspiracy theories, Chicken Little concern-trolling, deep hypocrisy, false alarms, made-up statistics, and what one imagines to be a pervasive domestic fug of cat feces, tea-stained vocal scores and dandruff-dusted cardigans. Internet people are insane. Read the comments here, just for fun.

(An aside: have we moved past that thing of articles about art appearing and then setting off an internet shitstorm and then the author being like, well, if it sparked conversation… then smugly smiling? I know I always bring it up but remember that completely vile Sasha Frere-Jones article about how indie rock wasn’t black enough, and then that nice boy Will from the Arcade Fire took him to school like six times with an apple for teacher and SFJ was like, *NPR smile* about “The conversation?” If the last two sentences of that thing I just linked to don’t make you want to put down what you’re doing, find him, and take away his internet, I don’t know what will.)

After the opera closed, I did all my dry-cleaning and discovered that everything I wore during the shows was like, fight-or-flight sweat damaged. It was so insanely fun and great and I would do it again in One Minute. I lost a scarf and a hat in the process somehow, so if you see them somewhere, send it to me at the office?

Other things that had happened: I wrote this review of the Beyoncé album that dropped in the middle of the night.

Do you want to talk about how beautiful the Orlando de Lassus “Alma Redemptoris Mater” is?

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Orlando de Lassus Alma redemptoris mater
The Tallis Scholars

Do you want to talk about how I finally got around to reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and that I totally loved it?

I’m doing another one of those Trips right now that started in New York, and somehow, over a fortnight and change, finds me in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Paris, Lyon, Paris, Lyon, and Paris again. In Los Angeles, I attended the premiere of a new piece I wrote for Anne-Sofie von Otter and Emanuel Ax: two childhood heroes, 2gether 4ever! What was extra cool about this concert was that they folded a new piece by me and a new piece by Missy inside a recital of Brahms songs and solo piano music. Anne-Sofie stayed on stage the whole time, hiding in a chair when she wasn’t needed, avoiding all those endless entrées classiques that take up time and break the mood. The LA Phil is great and cozy and familiar and professional and, really, when it’s 72° all year ‘round, how could they be anything but? Their program annotator somewhat cruelly wrote in my bio, “His opera Two Boys was widely discussed at its premieres in New York & London” which… you know. Jesus wept. One rather wants to have engraved cards made that read “Your mom, too, was widely discussed” and then on the other side “Yours in Christ, Nico xoxo,” but do you know how expensive engraved stationery is these days? Ok now I’m done talking about that. Shh.

I’ll be back in LA in April to play David Lang’s death speaks, and my goal for next time is to not be stuck in traffic the whole time and to take one (1) run whilst there. Missy and I drove out to Santa Monica to see some friends for dinner, and in the last mile before their house there were more glowing and satisfied-looking Cali runner people than there were cars. It was inspiring, in the way that feeling shameful about one’s own lumpen, black-clad avoirdupois always is.

Beyoncé

from Thursday, December19th of the year2013.

I had a series of disjointed thoughts about that Beyoncé album:

Let me tell you a story about my phone. Four times in the last few years, it has made a certain series of Noises. My current theory is that the Noises are generated when a critical mass of gays text one another at the same time. The first time, it was when Michael Jackson died and I was in a fever-dream in St. Petersburg, Russia, having just interviewed the homeless-looking and possibly insane conductor Valery Gergiev. The second time, it was when Whitney died, and I was absurdly having gnocchi with certain friends and then other friends rang and we had to pull the whole evening over “to be together in this time of need.” The third time, it was when I got off a plane last week in Rome, and I thought to myself, “Girl, not Janet, not tonight.” It was a false alarm: it was just that English diver announcing that he was fuxing a man.

Then, last Thursday night, I was asleep in a very, very rural hotel in Iceland when the phone made the Noise again. I was almost too scared to check it, but then, in my benighted fumbling, my computer and iPad turned on, and they started making sonic ejaculations too, which they hadn’t made for Michael or Whitney. What is it, I thought, the President? My mother? Of course the answer was that the internet wanted to send me many gigabytes of Beyoncé’s new unannounced album and its attendant videos, and of course I moved heaven, earth, ice, and lava to have my computer in the one square metre of the hotel that could actually make this happen, because I am an homosexual and these Knowlesian dispatches are treated, by cultural necessity, as oracular and as gospel: gnomic, poetic, abstract, and very, very relevant.

At first I was anxious about the description of it as a “visual album,” because these days, which albums aren’t? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Lady Gaga video, but I know that her appeal — even to me, not ever having beheld her on purpose — is partially to do with her Visual Presentation. Beyoncé’s songs, on this album, connect to one another not just musically, but via a seemingly personal, almost Forrest Gump-like time-traveling woman’s journey through various eras and — I shudder to say the word — styles. It’s unbelievably ambitious and through-composed; where the music can feel unrelated from one song to the next, the video is especially and carefully elided, and where the video is stylistically at variance from one song to the next, the music itself creates an emulsion between all the various incarnations of Beyoncé, our tour-guide through heaven and hell. Her voice feels, here, stretched in all the best ways, and she is experimenting with various modes of vocal production, vibrato, enunciation, and textual stylization. She is relishing the individual words of her lyrics, and savoring the shapes of the phrases the songs demand of her. When she freaks, as is her wont, a bridge or a second chorus, it is an insane and welcome delight.

Can we start with the statement that I basically loved this album? And then I will go song by song and talk about what, for me, felt like a reinforcement of this love, and where, in places, my love was challenged? I am going to talk, interchangeably, about the music and the videos, as that is how this thing was presented to me, as well as to the poor taxed wi-fi of the rural hotel and its staff. So if you’ve only heard the music, you should probably watch the videos, and if you’ve only watched the videos, you’re probably fine?

“Pretty Hurts”
This is a beautiful song. On the video, there is a long introduction with piano and strings. Use real strings, please, Beyoncé. The piano might be real but it sounds like the most expensive fake piano on the market. One would love to think that this is a comment on the artificiality of beauty — we’ve become accustomed to an expensive fake in favor of the built-in and beautiful imperfections of reality — but I doubt that was the reason for this particular oversight. Bey: call me; you know where I stay. The beat is solid when it comes in: four on the floor and a fucked-up snare on two and four. Then, in the second part of the chorus, it splits into a gorge ’90s r&b beat. The effect is simultaneously modern and retro: we are clearly in the era when the beat does not have to be swung or jagged, but also we remember the empowerment discourses of the ’90s, from which these lyrics seem to have been derived. Is it just me, or did everybody else briefly flash back to a teary-eyed moment in the car listening to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” back in the day?

There is one thing that I am going to add here, which is that in a lot of tableaux throughout this video (and indeed most of the videos here), Beyoncé is the most light-skinned woman of color in evidence; I only offer this because in the floral Koyaanisqatsi-like social media time-lapse bloom that accompanied this release, much of which was breathlessly sent to me in various formats, I couldn’t help but notice a lot of chatter about this. I think it is probably a good thing that issues of representation not just surrounding but also between women of color are boiling over such that they appear consistently across the dashboards of privileged, potentially indifferent, white men.

In this video, there is that famous black albino male model Shaun Ross, who is painfully beautiful, and whose video job it is literally to weigh in Beyoncé for her beauty pageant; it is entirely (and perhaps fully) possible that she knows precisely what she’s doing here and that she is punking these corners of the internet in advance of their objection to something over which she enjoys no control.

“Ghost”/”Haunted”
I live for this track. Je suis içi 4 this track. The intro is harmonically identical to the intro to the video of “Pretty Hurts” — again, I wish she had hired real strings. The video is affected and delicious. It’s like Pleats Please™/Got Milk™/boobies, ribs, ’n’ veiled abs. Her hair is layed like Michele Lamy in a nunnery, wearing the Shroud of Turin. I love everything about this. In the “Haunted” section, we get a wonderfully ghost-like, drugged, low-voiced Beyoncé articulating, “I know if I’m haunting you, you must be haunting me/It’s where we go, it’s where we’ll be/I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you.” There is something textually quite forward-looking about the haunted being the haunter; it’s the hauntologies of Wide Sargasso Sea meets Ju-on: The Grudge, but all coming 2 pass in a sort of Belle-Époque Brooklyn or potentially New Orleans. Then, suddenly we are deep into something reminiscent of that frenetic and genius sequence in The Shining where suddenly all the ghosts are there blowing one another in furry suits, meets the “Justify My Love” video. It’s this wonderful musical trick where the verse of a song can have five notes in it, freeing up the chorus to have only three; it’s not right, really, but it’s more than okay. It makes a frantic, churned sauce, and relies not on the thrilling vocal acrobatics of Beyoncé’s Destiny’s Child years but rather on a form of manic solitaire: lonesome and brilliant.

“Drunk in Love”
Is this the GarageBand “trilling strings” patch? Is this the generic “Eastern Vocalist” patch? What’s going on here? In the video there is some strange monstrance or something? Then the beat come in! Thank God! There is nothing, in terms of frequency, between the processed belly-dancing nonsense and the bass pulse, which is the most satisfying thing in the world. Beyoncé seems almost compulsively driven to pronounce words both Southern and Not — we have drinkin’ and drankin’ within nanoseconds of one another, and “fingers” approaches a Delta-ish “fangers” if you listen closely.

Yes, this bridge! It feels conversational and stylised — she delivers “last thing I remember is our beautiful bodies grinding off in that club” almost like a robot at first and then the text obeys a fierce gravitational pull back into conversational English and then tips into a decidedly Northern AAVE pronunciation of “club,” truncated and Arabically stopped.

The dance moves for this video are essentially the only ones I know how to do in public or private, so this is, quite literally, my jam.

The version of the lyrics I have here claim that she says, “He sweat it out like washed rags,” which is all well and good, although I would posit that she says “wash-rags,” which is slightly more delicious. The way she says “surfboard” is absolutely out of control and not conversational.

DID JAY Z JUST SHOUT OUT TRINA TALMBOUT, THE BADDEST BITCH!? I really hope so. I don’t like that people have forgotten about Trina.

I have no ability to speak about what is or is not appropriate about the following snippet uttered by Jay Z: “Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike/In ’97 I bite, I’m Ike Turner…” although I suspect it’s best left alone in these pages. Or not. I’m sorry, everybody; I just don’t know. Didn’t one of these cooter-exposing chanteuses say “beat up the pussy” about Drake on Twitter (more on her later) and then it turned out that she was in a dissociative fugue state? I don’t like the phrase, but perhaps it isn’t mine to dislike in the first place. Ike Turner: just saying. Mike Tyson: is his presence in an episode of SVU a form of penance?

“Blow”
I cannot wait until somebody remixes this for precisely 90 seconds in the gay bar. I think this song contains precisely 90 genius genius genius seconds up until, and including, when she clicks like a woodblock before the word “flavor.”

Also, I am culturally anxious about “Skittles” as a sexual reference, having spent the last year and a half on the internet, where Skittles, along with iced tea, have taken on an uncomfortable racist seat in which…

Wait, has the entire beat changed? Is she saying, “I want you to turn that cherry out?” Does she now have a permanent crimp? Are we in the “Purple Rain” video? Is this the best thing I’ve ever heard?

Oh wait, it’s over now, and it’s back to the part that will be remixed and played underneath “My Neck, My Back” in the gay bar, as is quite right; if any track needs a Xhosa tongue-click revitalization, it was that. I know I’m being selfish here, but I think I’m also evincing a certain generosity because this track is actually not the best, but there is real sideways potential here.

I will make you all a bet that more homosexicals than women will be using the phrase “turn that cherry out” before next weekend. In fact, the minute I file this piece I am going down to the bar to verify this.

“No Angel”
This is one of these songs where each syl la ble of the cho rus has its own note with a rest in be tween it and its neigh bors. More synth strings in this; I can’t bear it! Do we all agree that this track is a filler track, or am I grotesque and unfair?

“Yoncé”/”Partition”
I mean, this is the song of our times. This is great. Everything about this is great. Literally every sentient being in the universe is credited on this song, although it sounds to me like a Timbaland joint. I hope that the person who wrote the line “I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker” got paid many euros. The video is happening and it is great and retro. I myself have not performed (or, for that matter, received) fellatio in a limousine, so I will take her word for it that if Beyoncé herself were, indeed, performing it, it would require her going upon her knees, although it seems much simpler and, in point of fact, more discreet to simply lean over there and get to work. However, one has had the intelligence that her husband’s penis “could block the sun,” so she probably knows much better than anyone the logistical choreography required to get ‘r dunn in the back seat of any vehicle. Also: did everybody else know it was called the partition? I would have called it the divider, or perhaps the rood screen. And, further, the partition, I should think, was the entire dividing structure, whereas the thing she’s asking to be rolled up is just a window in the middle of it. It is also possible that limousine technology has improved since the last time I took one, which was two years ago in rural Québec. But this is neither here nor there; I was scared/excited when I saw in the track list that this song was going to be about Partition, as in, India/Pakistan, and that we would be treated to a mid-song rap by Gayatri Spivak herself, or like, chopped and screwed audio of Muhammad Ali Jinnah if Diplo already had Gayatri in the studio under some sort of exclusivity.

“Jealous”
Speaking as somebody in a relationship with Ambien, I have cooked naked, half-naked, sad, and angry. I have a variety of small oil spatter scars across my abdomen which only healed quickly enough to be replaced by others caused by more ambitious culinary efforts — have you ever pan-fried veal on an hypnotic? This song speaks to me, especially now that I have been taken off all drugs fitting this description. I usually wait for my man to be physically at home before I start cooking for him, and I would, perhaps, recommend the same for Beyoncé, because it is good to have somebody chop herbs fully clothed. I love this guitar sound. She has it basically doing fading pulses across an irregular number of beats, and it is the perfect musicalisation of anxiety that isn’t directed anywhere except into the atmosphere it inhabits. The trick, beloveds, with anxiety about where your man is at: you can’t be too mad, because there is always the off chance that he has been struck by a car and isn’t, in fact, creeping. This song really “gets” it, in that sense; it is anxious, but in a luxurious environment, which creates an additional anxiety. The urgency is a simmer rather than a boil.

In the strange video, Beyoncé walks out of her apartment past some Dickensian children who turn out to be paparazzi. There is a straight couple (of which the man is actually a gay I know from my gym) making out in what I presume to be TriBeCa. Then I can’t figure it out — it looks like she goes to meet a man in a hoodie on the Upper East Side, which can’t be true, because nobody would ever wear a hoodie on the Upper East Side. I love this song.

“Rocket”
This song is not for me. I am not here for this song, in the words of the entire internet about things they don’t particularly like. But I don’t dislike it; it’s just not my personal slow jam. There is too much instrumental information bashing around on the downbeats and the whole thing feels like it’s been the victim of an interior designer working desperately on commission. Has nobody heard those Prince jams where the instrumental genius is in how little there is going on? Are we not in the post-Yeezus landscape? The actual minimal places in “Rocket” are shabby-chicly overlaid with the sound of a record player hissing and fuzzing completely inappropriately, both musically and dramaturgically. In this video, I have seen more black and white silhouettes of Beyoncé’s mons pubis than I have seen of Antonio Sabato, Jr.’s adonis belt up in that Janet Jackson Herb Ritts video, which is saying something.

“Mine”
I feel like this song is going to speak really directly into the hearts and minds of a great many people. The video is beyond gorgeous — it’s like butoh/Pleats Please™/Ann Demeulemeester and Anna Teresa De Keersmaker don’t sue anybody shhh. There are genuinely muscular men in sand — I mean thick dudes, not twinks from the dance belt with an Equinox membership. The various hooks in the song are fussy and overly busy. I still don’t 100% understand what Drake is doing in this song, but this clap sample sounds fucking amazing. I will also add that Drake looks really great and pansexually sexy in a kind of dun-coloured oversized t-shirt, but then there is a really ill-advised and not-in-keeping-with-the-choreography black… tank top, I suppose, that reminds me of the “Un-Break My Heart” video, and not in a necessarily good way; one imagines a rather expensive course of waxing and manscaping to achieve that Beyonçaise level of pellicular smoothness on the shoulders.

“XO”
We are dealing with a sort of overstuffed situation here. I love The-Dream with every fibre of my body but it feels here like perhaps there were too many cooks in the kitchen? It feels like they should have taken off one accessory before going to the club, just for practical reasons like it might get caught on a speaker cable or under-bar coathook or something. The video, evidently by Terry Richards, looks a bit anonymous. I love the pulsed synth that underlies this song, and I love Beyoncé’s enormous smile throughout the video. This feels like it belongs to the gravitational pull on Beyoncé’s world (and indeed, Solange’s) to that of the 718’s other major export: so-called indie rock. This can, I think, only represent a good and productive alliance. I would perhaps add that while I appreciate the slow pronunciation shift between “lights out” and “xo” (calling our ear back to the “onto you/haunting you” game from before), the line “love me like xo” seems strange; how many of us know people who sign off on emails to us with “xo,” whose necks we would literally wring if we could climb through the laptop screen? Indeed, “xo” is my most poisonously deployed written closing. A lot of people love me like “xo” but frightfully few take it to the next level. Beyoncé, you have my number. Je t’attendz.

“Bow Down”/”***Flawless”
I am a little confused about the ***s before the title of this song, so I will just offer you my own reading of the glyphs, which is a form of scare quotes or inverted commas designed to make us actually really think about it what it is/means/could mean when a woman is described as being flawless. I like it. This song is great. It is genuinely felt, but also almost too fast, like a medical emergency or hypomanic episode. When the beat gets fast, it feels almost out of control, as if somebody’s crept into the control room and sped up the track overnight. The video, by Jake Nava, is perfection. The spoken bit, by Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, feels, I would say, almost perfectly placed in the mix, with one small danger, which is that it feels more like a texture with substance rather than substance with texture. I am going to leave it to other commentators to debate whether or not the definition of feminist spoken here (“a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”) aligns with the visions (social, political, or economic) of this album, but I will say that I am overjoyed by the tentacular internet argument that is spiralling out of this album and the questions it has posed. I have spent time today with an essay called “The Problem with BeyHive Bottom Bitch Feminism” — people are actively and aggressively thinking about this.

“Superpower”
I could live the entire rest of my life without remembering this song. It is an insult to all the talent involved here to not be using a real string section with a gorgeous arrangement. I am really happy that Michelle and Kelly got to sing on this track. If somebody had dug up, like, four extra thousand dollars, they could have had a really 3-D string arrangement and gone for it and I could have been bumping and grinding in my elevator.

“Heaven”
The sadness of this song comes from its composition and not, necessarily, from its production. The simplicity of the vocal production is much welcome here, though, and Beyoncé’s voice against the single drum is elegant and gorgeous. Some keening electronics carry us heavenwards towards a shout on the word “no,” sampled and allowed to echo over the climax. This is such insane and precise vocal production, and we should all be paying attention to how this works for future reference. What we do not need to be paying attention to is this piano playing. My fear is that even if this is a real piano, it is a very, very clean and perhaps Japanese one; the few mechanical noises (the soft, subtle brush of the felt against the strings) have been sterilized and hidden. The touch of the player is overly forceful and, I would argue, a few milliseconds ahead of the beat; the effect is less reverentially ecclesiastical and more those dudes banging around in the basement of Guitar Center. For a sense of the exact opposite approach, listen to the piano on the Sigur Rós track “All Alright,” where it is muffled, textured, and appropriately at odds with wherever the “click” might be — it gives the song lift, and a focussed attention to the ways in which grief is more of an amplified vacancy of sound than a fistful of notes. The austerity of Beyoncé’s song, compositionally, and, indeed, much of the track deserves a more nuanced touch.

“Blue”
This song itself is really satisfying; I sort of wish the production and the song were slightly divorced. Again, there is a huge missed opportunity for real instruments — the credits, tellingly, reveal a “violin” arranger; but surely this is a woman whose voice requires not just violins, but violas, cellos, basses, violas da gamba, trombones, zithers, hurdies-gurdy, the works! Every sound in this mix feels in focus here, in the unfortunate way of an animated film where each blade of grass is in slightly too perfect detail. I know that many people love this kind of music mix, and I feel churlish even pointing it out, and it is really masterfully done, and it’s no more a criticism than an observation.

Beyoncé is so fun and great and major. I am going to spend, I am sure, the rest of my life listening to six or seven of these tracks a few times a year. I am so happy she released it the way she did; I think that had she and her PR or whatever futuristic PR thing Beyoncé has made a traditional campaign around this, we’d have all been too distracted with other things to properly deal with it. By releasing it in the middle of the night, it feels unexpected and magical.

Originally posted on talkhouse.

Nico Muhly: the power of Tavener’s soul music

from Wednesday, November13th of the year2013.

The following appeared in The Guardian 13 November, 2013:

As a chorister, I always looked forward to singing Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God. It’s a simply constructed piece: the choir is split up into two parts. The left side sings identical music to the right, but slightly delayed. The brilliance of the construction is that the chords, no matter how consonant, rub up against their twins lagging behind, creating a thick and sacred texture. It is delicious to hear, and even more toothsome to sing. Much of Tavener’s music – including the longer and sonically more complicated works – is constructed in “visible” ways: the skeleton of the compositional structure is part of the listener’s interface with the piece. This is ecclesiastical architecture at its best and most sublime, where the structure soars and reassures at the same time.

To study Tavener’s music is to immerse oneself in the subtle vocabulary of stillness and slow change. I’ve always found a connection between the deliberate simplicity of his melodic sensibilities and the melancholic strophes of Vaughan Williams’s coronation motet O Taste and See, which never quite commits to a tonal focal point as much as to a horizon line towards which the listener glides. Similarly, in Tavener’s wonderful Song for Athene, pastoral melodies in various modes unfold over a single drone on the note F; there is less of a sense of melodic development and more of a sense of an organic holding pattern: birds circling in the distance. At a certain point, the camera zooms in, and an inexorable and slow crescendo points us towards an inversion of the drone – the floor is now the ceiling – and a shimmering climax. The trick only works because of his skill in deploying it.

It is difficult to overstate the effect Tavener’s music has had on younger generations. There is much to be learned compositionally from careful study of his patience and surprise revelations, but I am more interested in how singing his music has enabled a generation of musicians to really enjoy stillness and circular structures. Much of the modern Anglican choral tradition is built on glorious, directional phrases that coddle the text. Tavener’s music usually insists on simpler textures: a drone, and an economy of one or two notes per syllable (or, in more extreme examples, one syllable stretched over many, many, many notes). To sing this music is to learn how to resist romantic phrase-shaping, and to make the beauty in expression more to do with what is withheld than with what is presented. This kind of music-making creates thoughtful musicians. It is difficult to imagine that the choristers of Durham Cathedral who had to figure out what to do with Tavener’s 11-minute Ikon of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne didn’t then return to their diet of Byrd and Tallis with a heightened sense of how to achieve maximum impact through understatement.

I met John Tavener once, a few years ago, at London’s Barbican. He had been unwell, so it was solemnly exciting to see him make his way gingerly down the shallow and wide stairs. Along with six or seven other composers, we’d been asked to reinterpret various works by Handel. As is typical of these variety shows, we all made these fussy pastiche things, except for Tavener, who wrote a very simple piece called Little Reliquary for G.F.H. A simple melody in the voice, imitated, if my memory serves, by an oboe: a personal, generous, and gorgeously oblique tribute to what makes Handel’s own music so luminous. The rest of us had skittered about the surface of Handel’s originals, but Tavener had plunged directly into the cold and honest stream that feeds the pond.

His death at 69 is a sad shock. After his most recent illness, it seemed as if his compositional output had entirely stopped – he described it in the press as a crisis of faith, as a sort of emptiness and silence. He wrote his way out of it, though, creating a series of works in a relatively short time. I happened upon the score to one of these later pieces in my publishers’ offices in London last year. It was scored for voices and three string quartets. It didn’t seem, as is the way with some composers’ late-period works, like a sacred relic or a death-mask. Instead, it seemed like a transparent and honest piece of work heralding the beginning of another decade of innovation, clarification, and sacred simplicity. In writing this, I realise how much he has given us both as composers and interpreters; I mourn the music he left unwritten, but am so happy to have grown up with so much of it.

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