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Always funny

from Wednesday, January20th of the year2010.

Pre-concert talks are always really funny to me. I always fear them slightly but know that it’s really important to do because concertgoers tend to really like them. I never go to them, so I have no idea what you’re meant to do to make a successful one. I got sort of blind-sided today by a series of unfortunate events (1. coffee machine malfunction at home, 2. totally weird subway situation, 3. an unexpected walk outside in the very very cold with no coat to a Methodist church filled with home-schooled children who had written a wonderful spatial set of variations on Copland’s Sextet) and ended up at a pre-concert talk at the Wigmore hall where I was disastrously hungry and over-caffeinated and was too OCD to use the toilet and was wearing one layer 2 few. So! I ended up sounding slightly manic and in my frenzy fucked up my Queens (I lumped Purcell in with Elizabeth rather than Mary) and then got totally insane when this random guy asked me My Least Favorite Question in the World.

My Least Favorite Question in the World is a question that only the English ever ask. It is a question that is not in fact a question but is just a mean comment, disguised in an observation. It goes something like this: “Isn’t it the case that in the new music scene in New York, a lot of music is being written ___*insert generality here*___”. If the generality is that the pieces are short rather than long, this is code for “Americans are superficial.” If the generality is that pieces are more for orchestra and less for small ensemble it is a coded comment about Americans being opportunistic. Today’s variation was that music in “the” “new” “york” “scene” is composed, for the most part, of music for voices and percussion ensemble. And I just thought to myself, what on earth is the question here? And instead of answering politely, I kind of lost my cool and just accused this poor dude of coded language and was very unrelenting. I was basically like, “I’m sorry that all the fun festivals at the Barbican are Reich and Adams but, like, Tehillim is a beautiful piece of music and let’s not generalize about scenes” and then I added something about the Kwakiutl and something else about Lesbians just to confound anybody who was trying to follow me logically. After the talk, I tried to find him to apologize and sort of make peace but he had vanished and I had to Majorly Correct my caffeine/sweat/hot/cold/toilet qi.

Anyway, the short version of this story is: sorry, dude! You came to my pre-concert talk and I am super appreciative and you asked what I think was an innocent question and I unloaded a huge pile of sass on you for no reason.

But then, I sort of got to thinking (cue Carrie Bradshaw cut-away here) that questions about “scenes” in other places are always, in a sense, coded. I have written about my sense of, and my relationship to, “the” “new” “york” “scene” in this space before; I’m not even going to link to it because I was very cruel to a few people and hurt a bunch of feelings. If you want to find it, just search in the search box. But the point is, I am so committed to actively resisting these notions of scenes “” I just bristle anytime anybody uses the word. But probing a little deeper into my weird hang-up about this, I realize that my music is slowly unraveling itself from being written in New York. Impossible Things, the piece that Mark Padmore and Pekka Kuusisto will premiere with the Britten SInfonia next week “” not a note of it was written in America. Motion, which we’ve been touring for the last few days, was written almost entirely in Singapore and Cambodia. This giant opera I’ve been slaving over was written almost entirely in Iceland and the Faeroe Islands, with only the merest dynamics and articulations added in the 212. This big piano piece I’m writing now is going to have been entirely written in this ridiculously expensive, vaguely Saudi-banker efficiency in London. What right do I have to speak about what’s going on in New York? An English friend is instant messaging me right now saying that he’s about to see all my musician friends at a gay bar in New York “” I am in my pajamas realizing figured bass and the church bells in Smithfield have just struck 3 AM; I am completely Remov’d from the Scene, pieces for voice and percussion notwithstanding. Who has a right to articulate what’s going on in a place?

So now I’ve come back around, and I feel like I was right to bristle at the question. The implication in asking about what’s going on somewhere else is, in some way, a dig. Isn’t all art in Russia this sort of ironic Stalinist self-referential portraiture? Isn’t all music in Bamako just folk music with an electric bass? Isn’t music in Paris just IRCAM algebraic jibjab? It becomes a question about your relationship with your own city: what is being made in London that’s beautiful? Who is making music that moves you, Question Dude? Is it Patrick Wolf (whose slow descent into more & more baritone pleaseth)? Is it Simon Simon Bainbridge? Is it Michael Nyman? Where Judith Weir at? What did you people do with Steve Martland, anyway?

I love London and would love to get a handle on what music is being made here that is touching people. As a foreigner, being fêted with these numerous and wonderful performances, it’s hard to get a handle on. I’m doing a workshop for young composers in Cambridge on Saturday, which I hope will give me some sense of, you know, who these people are and where they are deriving their pitch material from. But I’m not entirely sure that seven hours in Cambridge is going to necessarily give me the synecdochal overview that would be the analogue to whatever it was that Dude.co.uk was talking about with the voices and percussion thing. Did he mean the Little Match Girl Passion? Was it a dig on the Little Match Girl Passion? Tehillim? Four Proverbz? That batshit George Crumb thing that’s the most beautiful thing in the world, Unto the Hills?


  • This made me feel really grounded in resisting these silleez, thank you for writing it.

  • excellent entry. I’m studying my Ph.D (in composition) in Birmingham, and coming from Canada, I can’t seem to get a grasp of what the heck is going on here.

  • What. Thom. Said. I just transpose it to the ‘modern’ ‘dance’ ‘scene’ (or, god forbid ‘contemporary’ ‘dance’), and resist the silleeez with all my heart. Thank you.

  • PS: synecdochal. Swoon. <3

  • I can’t speak for the guy that asked the question, but as someone present in the talk… no worries, as I posted on twitter your pre-concert talk was really interesting and I really loved your perspective and attitude about work and craft and about being part of the (musical) community in the sense of working all sort of people. Thanks for that and the concert, shame I’ll have to miss the Roundhouse one, it’s such a great venue.

  • Keep your knickers on, love. One batty question at the Wigger doth not a Troubling National Tendency make.

    Did you hear the Wigmore Titter (to be heard at end of Haydn scherzos), the Wigmore Hacking Cough or even (as sometimes occurs) the Wigmore Actual Death Rattle during your sojourn?

  • Letting the audience ask questions is, in practice, very often A Bad Idea.

  • The problem with a “scene”, or rather the invocation of one, is that it automatically diminishes the intimacy and personality of a piece to the audience at large. “Ah. Now I know you’re from New York. I’m going to try to find New Yorkness in every measure”… it really does a disservice.

  • No, Samuel Becker, letting the audience ask questions is a really brave and wonderful thing.

    I imagine most people who would go to a pre-concert lecture are interested in learning more about music, and it seems like a really great thing for someone to be good enough to stand up and give a little lecture, as well as to answer any questions. Some questions will be dumb, but some are probably very earnest and well-meant. You can’t say “No one may ask questions because someone might ask a really stupid one.”

    At the same time, whenever I’m trapped at a press conference with journalists and they’re asking actors “What was it LIKE working with Tim Burton?” I just want to die, so I do understand that other side.

  • (Ms Higgins, you might want to be a little circumspect about throwing around the word “Wigger” in some contexts.)

  • Whatever happened during the talk, the Times reporter couldn’t say enough good things about you in the profile today, so I think your reputation in London is safe.

    Is the BBC broadcasting either of your concerts?

  • Grrg, “the Wigger” just means “Wigmore Hall”; I’ve usually heard “Wiggers” though (which can also refer to the audience, especially regulars).

  • Love it! I was entertained, I learned, and now I need to look up the word synecdochal. And I thought I had a good vocabulary. lol

    Thanks Nico

  • No, Samuel Becker, letting the audience ask questions is a really brave and wonderful thing.

    In theory I completely agree with you. But in practice I find myself far too often listening to people who just want to make their opinion heard and don’t have a very interesting question to ask. So many times I’ve sat there when someone has been talking for five minutes or more and I’m thinking ‘what IS your question?’
    Maybe I’ve just had bad luck to be at cringe-inducing question sessions?

  • If you really don’t care about scenes you will write an outrageus piece for voices and percussion and call it “A Huge Pile of Sass.”

    There.. I have forced my opinion on all of your asses!


  • Jim, I’ve been to Wigmore Hall. Many times. But regardless of the context, if go you around talking about “wiggers” in the USA, you are going to be smacked. Like, physically. Back of hand to the face. Just a word to the wise.

  • Cultural intrepretations
    January 23rd, 2010 at 10:50 am

    The discussion about “Wiggers” reminds me of the controversy surrounding KFC Australian TV advert. Personally, I’m adverse to a dominant culture forcing its own cultural interpretations and preconceptions on to another (despite my country’s astounding past track record in that area), but its probably unavoidable in our increasingly global community. I ‘spose one could argue we’re “talking about wiggers” while located in the US right now. OK so I’m not, Charlotte’s not, Wigmore Hall isn’t, the author of the blog currently isn’t, but Grrg may well be, other readers certainly are and this website probably has its physical home there. But anyway, don’t worry Grrg, Charlotte likely has enough wherewithal about her to remain culturally sensitive, and therefore inoffensive and un-assaulted, during any travels she might make in the States, without your help.

  • Cultural intrepretations
    January 23rd, 2010 at 10:50 am

    P.S. Great blog!

  • hells yea kwakiutl! i’m impressed by your first nations knowledge

  • […] To add to the excitement Pekka and Nico were down to do a pre-concert talk at 19:00. I knew that Nico’s pre-concert talks were liable to be entertaining from a blog post (or should I say blog rant) he wrote about naff questions at pre-concert talks: http://nicomuhly.com/news/2010/always-funny/ […]