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Alice Tully Hall Sounds Great

from Thursday, August20th of the year2009.

So, the new Alice Tully Hall sounds fantastic. My friend Elena and I sat in literally the last row all the way to the left for the John Adams chamber music concert featuring the ICE ensemble. The sound doesn’t have to be great in the last seat in the house (I saw the Kronos Hvartet from the last seat at BAM’s Harvey Theater and I couldn’t hear squat) but the sound was excellent. In this post I want to touch on three issues. Number one: The fucking café in the new Alice Tully Hall, which continues to be terrible. Number two: John Adams and Synthesizers. Number three: new music leather and hair.

Number One: The fucking café in the New Alice Tully Hall, which continues to be terrible. I want to love this place. I want this place to be everything I need out of life: a place to relax and kill time in between various things to do at Lincoln Center. During Lincoln Center festival, in particular, stuff is happening all the time; it’s very smart to have a central place where you can get a sammich and cappuccino. I have blogged about my experience there before, and was glad to see upon arrival that the Officious Homosexual was nowhere to be seen. Excellent. So, I sat down with my laptop, and started looking for an outlet. Okay, not so many outlets. I worked off of battery power for a while until I saw some of the ICE kids (one of whom was the unbelievably fabulously named David Byrd-Marrow, an effortlessly well-intoned horn player) and then I got shy and nervous and started hunting aggressively for a place to recharge. Now. There is an outlet “” a pair of outlets in the corner of the café. I go over there, plug in. I’m there for an hour, I have my meeting, I order multiple cappuccinos, I order food. As I turned my attention to something online (which now works there, wirelessly and without great effort), a small woman came over to me and said that I was not allowed to plug in my laptop. Excuse me? It sucks for me and it sucks for her: we are both victims. Clearly, she doesn’t personally care if I plug in my laptop. But somewhere, in some office somewhere in Lincoln Center, there is somebody who has decided, presumably with a grimly autoformatted document generated on Microsoft Word on their PC, that it is Not Allowed to have a Laptop (or “any other device”) plugged in in the single pair of outlets in the corner of at65, the café in Alice Tully Hall. I wasn’t about to confront this poor woman, because I know how that conversation goes (“it’s not my rules”) . Short of the “take me to your leader” conversation, I decided to put a pin in it and take it 2 tha web. If any reader in this space can explain this rule to me, holla in the comments. Also forward to me all relevant .docz.

Number Two: John Adams and Synthesizers. Adams has used synthesizers in, like, most of his mature works. They creep in even in early works like Harmonium (1980); they comprise the body of his Hoodoo Zephyr (1993), and they appear as more naturalized orchestral citizens in Nixon in China, Slominsky’s Earbox, The Death of Qlinghoffer, etc.

John Adams Tourist Song from Hoodoo Zephyr

See, so, it’s like, you know, a piece for synthesizer. I like Adams’s shamelessness about putting MIDI on his website, including even the dreaded MIDI saxophone. And the dreaded MIDI hi-hat. And I like how it’s integral to his compositional process and how that trickles down into MIDI keyboards turning up in the ensemble. My big question was: how is this stuff going to age? Check out this second movement from Gnarlý Buttons, one of the pieces from Monday’s programme:

John Adams 2. Mad Cow from Gnarly Buttons

So, it’s something interesting to think about. It’s from 1996; when you put a clarinet in a piece, you don’t think, how is this going to age (even though the clarinet was the new toy in Mozart’s time), and yet, thinking about synthesizers there is this idea of a time capsule. Check out this aria from Klinghoffer:

John Adams It Is As If Our Earthy Life Were Spent Miserably from The Death of Klinghoffer

And you think, well, it’s a gorgeous piece of music. It’s got this Alto Rhapsodý stylez male chorus in the back, a really unexpected pants role Palestinian terrorist, Alice Goodman’s twisty, imagistic poetry: everything you want from stuff. And yet: synth tom-tom? I think that this opera will be around in 500 years (the last eight minute aria is some of the best Adams music that there is), and I wonder what the music director of, like, the West Baghdad Community Opera in 2449 Anno Domini is going to do to rescue those MIDI tom-toms from themselves. Here is that last chorus:

John Adams You Embraced Them from The Death of Klinghoffer

This is some beautiful vocal writing, some exciting synthesized piano, some great use of 60’s soul backup vocals, and wonderful lyrics from miss thing. When she says spinal column? Somebody at Trinity College, Cambridge, needs to send that heifer an extra treacle sponge for that. So good. And when she says, “long-imagined son” at the end (5:45 into the excerpt), I still get a little weepy.

Now you all recall that everybody lost their damn minds over Klinghoffer “” Adams sort of alludes to this on his website. It was anti-semitic, it was naïve, it was this, it was that. Didn’t the ADL, like, picket the San Francisco performances? The BSO didn’t sing the choruses after 9/11 never 4get? It’s beyond gorgeous, it’s a fascinatingly difficult work, and there are four or five moments in it that haunt me daily “” I think I wouldn’t be brave enough to think about writing an opera without this work existing on CD. You all need to get on it: at the low low price of $16 (I think I paid $40 for it at the Tower Records on Newbury Street, just to put a date on my own ass) it’s well worth it, even if you skip over the synth tom-toms. And young composers: get into these problematic works. If the ADL cared enough to protest, if people will take five minutes out of their lives to hate on it, it’s probably worth digging a little deeper into that pumpkin patch.

Number Three: new music leather and hair. New Music concerts are so problematic for clothing. For those of you not in the communityâ„¢ let me break it down. Before the show, somebody says, “hey guys, what are we going to wear?” at which point you are presented with one of three options. Option the first: Street Clothes. Option the second: all-black. Option the third: black bottoms, “colored tops.” This is what we had going on with the ICE ensemble (somebody from ICE PR – call me. Do you wish to be referred to as just “Ice?” Saying “ICE Ensemble” is like saying “ATM Machine”) the other night, who looked great! It reminded me of the 90’s, in a weird way, but they were rocking it out. However, their second cellist (not the deliciously named Kivie Cahn-Lipman, whom I sort of know) had New Music Mohawk. I ignored it because he sounded awesome on Shaker Loops and also, from the worst seat in the house, looked like he might be fine (?) but then: Michael Collins, a wonderful (and older) clarinettist, is gonna take to the stage talm bout a Leather Blazer. Now girl. The leather blazer signifies so ice600much. Can’t we leave it in the 90’s signifier bin? Along with the khaki, the double polo, the cowrie necklace? From here on out for all new music shows? There is something so performatively New Music about it that it made how well u played the concertino compete for mental real estate, because I was watching u play it in a leather blazer.

This is my Alice Tully + Heat Stroke inspired rant for the month. Thank you for your kind attention. I think that the French people who moved across the hall from me are having an orgy. I am going to put tape on the windows and get into the fancy chardonnay.


  • “The BSO didn’t sing the choruses after 9/11 never 4get?”

    But the Palestinians didn’t 9/11 us! That’s the most racist thing ever. It’s like if I stopped shopping at Zabars because I got a bad corned beef at Katz’s Deli. Fuck a BSO.

  • The Wall Street Journal had an article recently about coffee shops not letting people plug in their laptops. “Amid the economic downturn, there are fewer places in New York to plug in computers,” the article says, though it sort of mixes up the specific trend of covering up outlets or explicitly telling people it’s OK to use laptops but not to plug them in and the larger discouragement of laptop use. Is the no-plugging-in thing about the actual cost of the electricity people use? I sort of doubt it. If it’s about not wanting people to take up space without spending money, a blanket no-plugging-in rule doesn’t seem like the best approach.

  • If the music is worthwhile, people 500 years from now will find the “exotic” instrument: A gamba for the St. Matthew Passion, a couple of basset horns for the Gran Partita, a Wagner tuba for the Ring, an ondes Martenot for Turangalila, and a MIDI for Klinghoffer.

  • Here’s the breakdown of the synthesizer question, as I see it:

    Some synth sounds are synthesized versions of acoustic instruments. Are they being employed for reasons of logistical practicality, or because the fake sound is a particular aesthetic that the composer is going for? If it’s a logistical issue, they’ll survive just fine because synthesis gets better and more convincing every year. Within a few years nobody is going to be able to hear the difference between synth toms and live toms if the performer doesn’t want it. (Actually, with percussion we’re basically there, so let’s say synth piano instead). If, on the other hand, the composer is going for the synthesized aesthetic because he just digs the sound of the toms on his Casio, we may be in trouble. It’s hard to tell whether current synthesized versions of real instruments are just going to sound fake and terrible in a few years (i.e. dated in a bad way) or classic and iconic (dated in a good way). As technology evoloves, some synth sounds just sound like bad fakes, and some take on lives of their own, moving over into my second category.

    The second category is, of course, synth sounds that are supposed to sound like synth sounds. Mostly we’re talking about the analog sound here. A lot of early Philip Glass sounds very dated to me, but at the same time there’s a certain charm to the fact that it sounds like a product of its time. Plus, really classic analog sounds are, at least in the pop world, becoming part of the standard orchestrational pallette. I suspect sawtoothy pads and squarewave leads and 808 drums and rubberband bass sounds are here to stay. So a composer is probably safe, especially if he sticks with the basics.

  • Consider this about NYC cafes:

  • There is no other fun to be had in life like high Nico dudgeon.

  • As Heather mentioned, I think the trickle of electricity that one or two laptops might draw is not the issue with why corporate-run cafes have a “no devices” policy.

    If, for instance, the fine establishment was littered with plugs, then it would be full-up with fine young cannibals like ourselves drinking frappucinos all day and scaring away the upstanding citizens who tour through and have lunch. Places like McDonald’s, for instance, offer free Wifi so that during your optimal 12.37 minute lunch rush, you feel better about stopping in there while you wolf down your veggie burger and fries and McCoffee. But when one browses the internet and takes up space and blogs from the table in the corner, one is sure to put a hit in their profits, statistically speaking. The “two-plugs-in-the-dining-area” design of the place tells me that hip guys like you are distinctly unwelcome if you bring your laptop and settle in. We have a Panera here in town that is crawling with folks studying over their fancy coffee drinks, but I feel in some deep part of me that when the place gets hopping during lunch the management’s collective brow furrows at bloggers and students.

    Nobody gets a free ride, no matter how big the smile is at the front desk or register…

  • Galen,

    If I were a composer, I would only be writing for a synth tom because I love a synth tom. It would not be for reasons of “logistical practicality.”

    A) “I’m totally in love with this almglocken sample” = Yay! Use it. I’ll come to the concert.
    B) “Synth percussion is so close to real percussion now that I might as well just put that tom roll sound on the keyboard player’s high D#” = ok, it might be fine! It’s probably kind of embarrassing!

  • You get me thinking about Glass and synthesizers — I recall when the LP of Satyagraha was released back in the 80s, there was a stir in the classical press about using multitracking and synthesizer enhancements (particularly in the brass). Glass (& Muncaksi & Riesman) used a lot of gear that has aged considerably, but I don’t think this necessarily impairs or precludes a contemporary interpretation of the work.

  • Peter Sellars said at a talk a couple years ago that Klinghoffer will never be presented in the US until there’s a separate Palestinian state. The way Adams/Goodman/Sellars treated that story is just too inflammatory for some people, which I agree is really sad because there is some great, great music to be heard there. The Aria of the Falling Body (?) is astounding.

  • Hello there!\n\nI love your blog and I couldn’t stop laughing about your officious homosexual experience.\n\nIn January, I performed the percussion part (malletKAT + timpani) to the Death of Klinghoffer with John Adams conducting.The technology involved in the production was so complex that oftentimes I was afraid to breathe around the synths.\n\nIf I might add my two cents, here are a few things:\nFirst, if I’m not mistaken, John Adams wanted us (myself + the three keyboard synth players) to use the same sounds that were used in the original production. I can see why this might be a bit unappealing, considering the rapid rate at which technology is advancing these days. However, by the time the year 2449 rolls around, I think musicians will be viewing these sounds similar to how we now view period stringed instruments; sure we can use “modern” violins to play 17th or 18th century music, but it sounds more authentic to use period instruments.\n\nSecond, it seemed pretty clear that one of the reasons for John Adams’ extensive use of electronics in this work, at least, was for logistical purposes. There were about 40 patches for my instrument alone. So maybe if the stage was like five times bigger, and if there were about six percussion parts (plus a harp, sax, etc) it would be possible to use individual instruments. But hey, I thought these sounds were way cool, and the fact that some of the sounds were foreign made the whole experience even more haunting and powerful.\n\nOne of the administrators in the Juilliard orchestra office said that what makes great art is that it challenges people. This piece encourages people to challenge their beliefs….big time. In addition, it adds a great deal of power and emotion to the music itself.

  • As to the primary question, how will synthesizers age? As you rightly observe, the problem is that not all synthesizers produce the same sound, and each new model does not have the same sounds as the last, where as a clarinet still sounds like a clarinet in each new make. We are already experiencing the answer to the question. Has anyone tried renting a Yamaha SY77 lately, in Omaha? Certainly recordings will live on, but the ability to play a piece live will be dependent on composers, publishers, or players updating the format of the sounds to remain current to the day.

    The SECOND upgrade of John Adams’ music is already underway resulting in Kontakt banks (computer based software sampler for those who don’t know). Hardware samplers and synths of professional quality are no longer being made or used in quantity. So in only 15-20 years 2 upgrades have been required. If weighted keyboard controllers become a thing of the past, then we will really be in trouble. For now it’s enough of a set back that software samplers all have noticeable latency in them (delay).

    The real question of how pieces age may lie in a different question, who pays for and performs upgrades? The composer (who in 2449AD will not be part of the picture), the publisher who gains little financially by updating a piece, or the poor orchestra manager/musician who just can’t find the old instruments and does the update on their own (if they can!) and as a gift to the music world posts the update to the internet for others.

    My personal take is that music demanded enough will evolve to survive through sheer economic will power (I’m with Joe on this one), but tertiary music does run the risk of falling so far behind the current state of technology as to be unplayable. The question then becomes, should all music be written to be playable forever in the future? The difference being that we expect the instruments of the standard orchestra to continue to have a future so a traditionally written piece would inherently also have a future. I say no, why limit a composer’s freedom to enhance a piece’s lifespan? I’d rather a piece be played once in the composer’s ideal, than be repeatedly and eternally degraded due to a technical compromise.

    As for synthesizers in general: I have to disagree a little with Galen (I think). There is a certain kind of keyboard player that I hate, it’s the one that turns to each player in the pit and says “I can do that too” flips to a trumpet patch and starts vomiting midi trumpet. Then they start playing up three octaves with a smirk that says, “but I’ll bet you can’t do this!” I think we can all agree to hate or at least discourage midi anythings that try to imitate real instruments, as good as Yamaha has gotten at mimicking a grand piano, I don’t think the Hamburg D’s of the world need to worry about job security. I agree that every year the mimicking gets better, but there are over a million ways to play a quarter note, and that variety is the foundation of player and musical expression, which will either never be achievable by electronics, or, if it is, why would I want to listen to an electronic representation of something I could otherwise hear for real? (Then again, why is buying virtual furniture so popular in “The SIMS” games?) So I will here agree with Chris, at the very best, it’s a little embarrassing. I am not referring to rare instruments that are difficult to find in good working order, I’m talking the clarinets and oboes of the world. Low is the day when passing ruffians can say “Ni” to poor old women, and low is the day that I have to listen to a violin concerto on a keyboard instead of a Strad. I remember watching Avenue Q for the first time and thinking the orchestra sounded pretty dull and uninteresting. At the end of the show they panned through the pit to show trap set, a sax player and two or three keyboard players. I’m sure the producers thought they were saving tons of money… A single sample may perfectly reproduce the sound of the actual instrument, but the subtle changes from striking a drum in a slightly different spot, or strength etc are what keep music alive. We’ve all seen the “drum machines have no soul” which is the reaction to this fact.

    I think most of us agree that a synthesized sound is fine when it is uniquely electronic. With regards to the synth tom in question- John Adams confirms that the sampled toms in Klinghoffer are for their specific sound quality which can not be achieved by an actual tom. “If you listen to the opening of Omar’s aria in Act II of Klinghoffer, you’ll hear those deep booming drum sounds that are the product of electronic manipulation.” That manipulation is the same heavy compression we hear everyday in pop music. Take the first two bars of Green Day’s Insomniac album, and then show me a drum set that sounds like that. Of course there isn’t one. And yes, I did just compare John Adams to Green Day. Here we’ll say it is a logistical simplification to put the processed sound in a sampler, rather than to employ a remote percussion room with conductor video monitor, microphones to EQ, compression, and ultimate amplification into the performance space.

    We may be in trouble if a composer “digs the sound of the toms on their Casio” but there are myriad things a composer could like that would mean we are all in trouble. At the same time there is some AWESOME music that has been written out of original Nintendo and Gameboy sounds. Nixon in China will forever be an 80’s opera because of the synth patches, but along with Sellars’ cutout Airforce One and the “Chinese” makeup , those keyboard patches fit right in as “aesthetics of the day” or something like that. Is time stamping a piece by using an 808 any different than how we now perceive a harpsichord as specific to a part of the musical timeline?

    To Marc et al regarding future productions of Klinghoffer: attempts to navigate (sorry, it just came out that way!) are being made. Juilliard recently did a production you can read about here:

    And I can say that there are currently plans for an American opera company to produce Klinghoffer in 2011.

    As a closing note, I have to agree 100% that any art that causes a protest or outrage is worth checking out. We are bombarded by bubblegum pop because people don’t want to think on their way to and from work. If somebody hates something, then they have been forced to think, an activity grossly lacking in our society. I completely promote anything that encourages or requires a reaction, induces discussion etc. even if the conclusion is offense and disgust.

  • I bought these fancy noise cancelling headphones about five years ago, not for listening to music but for when I was overwhelmed by ice cream trucks playing digital chips of scot joplin and incredibly grating voices and noise that made my congenital insanity too much to abide.
    I started reading off the site because I loved the combination of your humors
    in what I had found before in print, but avoided the music selections in favor of your marvelous loving satires. Plus this music seemed hopelessly over my head after enduring every mode of alt rock at RI”s, ahem, “open and uncensored forum for local artists”
    Now that im familiar enough with you combination of wit, sarcasm and timelessly effective/assimilated drag queen lexicography Ive begun listening to the sound bites through these headphones and getting really astonished by the sound and your guidance regarding the mixed issues which you and your friends are permanently emersed
    .So far my favorite pair of clips was the two versions of brittens midsummer thingie which I discovered remained in synch with eachother if you alternated from playing one and then the other! Beside allowing my puerile delite in making the computer say ‘puck’… “PUCK” I eventually rose, via the headphones , to the level of enjoying a genre of music, or contrasts of genres in a way I did not think my old unwashed ears were capable. Thank you.

  • Great piece Nico. I had the pleasure of meeting the fabulous Alice G. last year in Cambridge, and then again when Hill was reading somewhere.\n\nI didn’t realise she was Adams’ librettist when first I met her (having alas never heard of her) and asked her what it was like being married to a poet. ‘Ask Geoffrey!’, she shot back.

  • Loved all of it. Tower records on Newbury Street. . . sigh.


    this u tube clip seemed like something you might enjoy, I dig the old grandma rockin the drums but those black basso horns are perty wild too

  • I believe the Officious Homosexual is no longer affiliated with the disappointing cafe. During the warm months, I have not minded sitting near it on “our bench” on Broadway, sometimes, rather than go 3 blocks to home, I’d scoot over to the cafe to use its bathroom and see the mournful help standing idle in the emptiness. The problem is that when the licensee complains to Lincoln Center about the lack of customers, no one in charge will know why or will be able to make the remedy. It’s all terrifically stupid.

  • last time I was there my friends and I ordered a bottle of wine. the serverdoofus dropped off the bottle and DID NOT OPEN IT. walked away. ten minutes later, after many effusive calls and whistles, we finally got our rather warm bottle of sauvb opened. atrocious. and no one has mentioned that the food is merely HIGH END CAFETERIA FOOD. nothing terribly fresh. nothing terribly tasty. give me a bucket of herbed frites with maldon salt … or something! a berry or two with a bit of creme fraiche? gawd.

  • just ICE. 🙂 thanks for wondering. no ATM machine, PIN number, etc.