from Sunday, March1st of the year2009.
Making arrangements for people is such a strange thing. I like to think about it like dressing somebody up ““ there are a whole bunch of ways to go about it, ranging from loaning them a pair of jeans and a clean t-shirt to getting a suit made to designing a costume that requires some kind of elk skin to construct. Working with singers usually, in my experience, is more about costume, and working with bands, I have recently learned, is more about getting just the Right Jean and just the Right Shirt. A lot of times, working with bands is about just organizing string players to noodle around appropriately. This is like dressing somebody up in a suit. Everybody looks good in a suit; the more expensive the suit, usually, the better off you look:
This is all very classic. You just add some strings on and everybody wins, you write a little line, or not, or whatever:
[audio:03 Breathe Me.mp3]
Sia Breathe Me
Let it be said that it took me a long time to find something that was an example of this sort of classic “added strings” arrangement. You all remember this song, right, from the end of Siggis Feet Under? You all wept. Don’t lie 2 me.
But maybe you don’t want a suit. Maybe it’s about something a little bit more rustic, more folky: a small ensemble of winds and brass, perhaps, scattered intermittently around:
[audio:08 O Death.mp3]
Sam Amidon O, Death from All Is Well
This is my arrangement for Sam Amidon’s version of O, Death.
But then you might want to dress something up way weirder, in more of a costume. Think dark, stark, single instruments, clean lines:
[audio:11 You Should Have Seen Us.mp3]
Teitur You Should Have Seen Us from The Singer
This is Teitur, with his arranger Trondur, using a really minimal costume kind of arrangement to cloak some of the body of this song. The arrangement becomes part of the essential character of the song.
So anyway, I just finished making a suite of eight arrangements for the Grizzly Bear & Brooklyn Philharmonic show last night. Grizzly Bear’s music is an interesting and difficult thing to arrange, because it is is already so textured and diaphanous. It’s kind of like trying to put a rubber band around a water balloon: it resists the formalized structure of a large orchestra beating time behind it. The way I thought about it, for the most part, was like designing a coat that you know will only be seen in the dark, through the rain, and slightly out of focus. Check out this song of theirs, Campfire, from their first CD:
Grizzly Bear Campfire from Horn of PlentÃ½
It’s kind of like this DaidÅ Moriyama shot:
…where if you focus in on it with too much precision and intensity, it loses the shine and the grime and the whole point of it is lost. Stoned Music Arrangements â‰ˆ Drizzly Night Clothes. This is my working hypothesis at this time.
In other news, I went to Los Angeles last week to hear the Los Angeles Master Chorale play this older piece of mine, Expecting the Main Things from You. It was a great performance; it’s a real luxury to hear a piece after three years of not thinking about it; I came face-to-face with 23 year-old Nico decisions that I found weirdly endearing. For instance, I know better than to write a violin line like this:
…but I sure didn’t in 2004! It ended up sounding great, though, and the people at the Los Angeles Master Chorale could not have been nicer.
We went to a few memorable sushi meals, including one at a place that had very aggressive signs written in neon sharpie saying things like NO CALIFORNIA ROLL and NO SPICY TUNA ROLL and WE’RE SERIOUS. I guess they are aiming for an Authenticâ„¢ Experience of some sort; I was into it, except that what ended up happening as a result of our having placed our trust in the sushi chef was a procession of very, very delicious fish but a pretty uninspired selection. If we’re not allowed a spicy tuna roll for weird moral reasons, can we at least have some monkfish liver? Smelt roe?
The other thing ““ and I know that I’m not meant to ever comment on reviews, but I just want to use this as a larger example in thinking about writing about music. The LA Times wrote one of these half-reviews of the show here, which describes Andrea Clearfield’s piece thus:
Clearfield’s “Dream Variations” is a setting of three Langston Hughes poems for chorus. Marcia Dickstein’s rippling harp suggested a river in one poem and set up a Latin rhythm in another. Yet the most striking elements were provided by the fluid, glistening interplay of the commissioning Debussy Trio (harp, viola, flute) and organist Christoph Bull.
K, cool, moving on:
Sametz’s “Music’s Music” celebrates the healing power of music in a lush, lovely, at times touching score that seems to veer closer and closer to the ethereal pastoral spirit of Vaughan Williams’ similarly inclined “Serenade to Music” as it unfolds. Mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser was the vocal soloist, and the only instrumental backing consisted of clarinet and harp.
The playlist concluded with the West Coast premiere of Nico Muhly’s “Expecting the Main Things From You,” in which selections from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” are first broken into choral fragments, then backed by a hazy series of Minimalist textures derived first from Steve Reich, then Philip Glass, then Reich again. But midway through the third section, the piece was running low on creative juice, as if the program’s internal iPod needed re-syncing.
Fair enough. Everybody’s got a flabby third movement. That, fortunately, is a matter of opinion, which he has been paid cash money to provide, and I welcome the criticism. But what annoys me about this is the idea that influence and derivation are evaluable acts rather than simply Things that are True. Yes, there is a lot of Reich and Glass in that piece, as there is in basically everything I have ever written and will ever write, and I am the first to admit it. So….what? Here, the description is trying to wield some kind of critical blade and not really hitting the mark. I wish he had said, “The third movement’s reliance on motoric gestures, which seemed derived from Reich and Glass, muzzled the pastoral flexibility of Whitman’s words, rendering them repetitive and sterile, if kinetically exciting” or something. Say you hated it! Say you loved it! Say that the presence of Reich and Glass is annoying because it’s inappropriate for the text! But just saying, “I smell Glass! I smell Adams! I smell Reich!” isn’t itself a review; it’s just a lazy description.
Where I’m getting with this is an attempt to de-vilify influence. Composers especially are trained to bristle at the suggestion that their music “comes from” somewhere. Thousands and thousands of pages have been wasted at the hands of academics sorting out whether or not Stravinsky used Russian folk material in his early ballets; of course Stravinsky was like, “no, I am totally genius and original” and then Richard Taruskin has to spent seventeen thousand years digging all this shit up “” it just seems like a waste of everybody’s time to not just fess up and demand that listeners evaluate what the music has done with its influences rather than just being able to point them out and call it a day. This is why I get so angry when people write things like “this band sounds like this band plus this band with a touch of this band” and then expect me to pay whatever it is for the copy of the newspaper the article was in. Identifying influence cannot be the last word in an honest evaluation of music, especially new music!