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.
July 1st, 2014 at 4:57 pm
Thank you, Nico. This was insightful and inspiring to read, and I genuinely appreciate your passion for new music and the fight to keep the means of expression for musicians and composers alive.
July 1st, 2014 at 7:18 pm
I am the years ago BYCA chorus manager..before that dancer..Cunningham my insperation and there I got into Phil Glass. And those sources lead me to you..Always find your music, rehearsals with the kids, and this writing stimulating & rewarding thanks
July 1st, 2014 at 7:21 pm
Thank you so much for acknowledging that what a composer has to say might not be possible or preferable with a traditional orchestra.
July 1st, 2014 at 10:16 pm
When I read your Pittsbugh interview this morning, I thought, Good for him. There was a lot to what you said and it was all very clear. No need to explain, or clarify or backpedal. A lot of what you said is what a lot of us think.
July 2nd, 2014 at 6:55 am
And what did you mean exactly by saying that “I think it would be fine if major orchestras closed”? Seems like a strange statement from someone who has gotten commissions and performances from the orchestra(s) you seem to be referencing.
As a longtime member of the NY Phil and a new music advocate, I took great offense at that statement.
[Response: Hi D, and thank you for writing. As I said above, this is a decontextualized clause, and I agree, it looks awful! What I meant was a slightly more long-term thing, which is to say, if an orchestra collapses, as, indeed, it seems like Minnesota had done, it doesn’t mean that nobody will ever hear orchestral music in the twin cities ever again, and, in fact, sometimes the noise surrounding such a collapse draws attention to the problems, and something even more healthy grows out of the ashes. I would also add that, again, I said this not in any way as a statement, but as a kind of off-the-cuff comment about the resilience of not only musicians, but the audiences who support them. In any case, regardless of the context, I apologize for having said this; it’s such raw meat as a quote, and I should have known better. Yours, Nico]
July 2nd, 2014 at 7:57 am
as always, your writings are thoughtful, insightful, and hilariously sassy–thank you for sharing!
July 2nd, 2014 at 8:40 am
I don’t know-having read the original article that caused you all the problems,this seems to be more (necessary) damage control than perhaps thoughtfully written.I’d love to hear what you think about all of this at a different time
July 2nd, 2014 at 11:36 am
So I think that both the original article and this post are completely spot-on. I worry a lot, as someone steering a large organization, about the weight of the apparatus. We’ve got to be more nimble in our response to a changing landscape and way more joyous about exploring other ways of making the music happen. But sometimes it does seems like blowing up all of the crappiest concert halls is a good place to start!
July 3rd, 2014 at 7:47 am
I hope you don’t feel the need to apologize TOO forcefully, Nico. Just as with your music, the written word (or the transcribed word from a conversation with a reporter) is going to be contextualized not only by the author but also by the worldview of the reader. I think you were holistically correct about most everything you said, here and in the interview.
July 8th, 2014 at 1:04 am
Went to Carnegie Hall for the first time two years ago with Philadelphia Orchestra/Simon Rattle/Barbara Hannigan/Berg,Ligeti,Beethoven and the concert hall exceeded all expectations. In May, I went to Avery Fisher Hall for the first time with actual press tickets to hear Vladimir Jurowski conducting in his NY Phil debut with Szymanowski and Prokofiev, and though the concert and playing was superb, Avery Fisher made me for the first time not hate Davies Hall in San Francisco, where I listen to my excellent hometown orchestra. The AF building is that bad, and all sentient music lovers wish the place would be demolished and the NY Phil played in Carnegie Hall or someplace equally fab.
The only “Classical electronic music” that I love off the top of my head is “Hoodoo Zephyr” by John Adams. It’s an amazingly fun piece that uses electronics for its inhuman ability to play fiendish rhythms.
July 20th, 2014 at 6:08 pm
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