April 06, 2007

On Virtuosity

[program note from a recent solo recital]

Virtuosity is generally defined in terms of technical prowess: thundering scales, incandescent figurations, overwhelming power... Virtuosity is a game between the performer and the audience. The former flaunts his technique via feats of strength while maintaining a suggestion of disaster awaiting around the bend.

This display is fundamentally one of showmanship. In the heat of the moment, one forgets that performing musicians are not slovenly bohemians, but trained professionals. Sure, the shaggy hair is part of our allure, but it’s hard to find time for a haircut when you have to spend all your free time practicing. We rehearse and work through our music so much that by the time you hear us, even the gnarliest passages have been reduced to child’s play. Once on stage, it’s our job to make them look hard again.

True virtuosity, to me, is making the hard sound easy. Virtuosity is the vocals on a Beach Boys album. Virtuosity is Aki Takahashi playing Morton Feldman. This virtuosity is not about flaunting your abilities to an audience, but rather presenting them in a kind of unassuming clarity. Listeners are invited to take them for exactly what they’re worth, but not forced to go further than that (that’s not to say you’re not allowed to show off your strengths, but you’re also forced to recognize when they give out).

As a pianist, music is something I have to pick up and feel in my fingers before I can know if it’s any good. Where other players blow, breathe, and drag horsehairs, we touch and caress. I try to play so you can get as close as possible to that kind of tactile engagement with sound.

The relationship I have with my instrument has been one of the biggest influences on the general nature of my music. My idea of development isn’t concocting a new guise for an intervallic motive, it’s playing something again to see if it still sounds good. How does it feel – how does it make you feel – the next time you hear it? The relationships created by these constant recontextualizations against past experience have a subtle complexity.

Though I often draw inspiration from non-musical experiences and forms, I do not want my music to be something you engage distantly and abstractly. I find our culture is all too dominated by ideas of things. One goes to a knick-knack-filled restaurant to eat an idea of a meal, puts on chic earbuds to listen to an idea of music, and in extreme cases, passes through life only knowing ideas of friendships. I want my music to be something you can only engage through an essential thing-ness. I genuinely want to create an experience that doesn’t need to go any deeper than its acoustic surface.

The program I selected is meant to show off the range of expression and potential for a deeper performer-audience relationship that’s possible with an “anti-virtuosity.” The pieces wedged between my own are meant to be entertaining diversions (they’re pop songs after all), but they’re also meant to be examples of music that has influenced my compositional technique and aesthetics.

"Rednecks" — Randy Newman
Frayed Shirt — Adam Baratz
"All My Little Words" — Stephin Merritt
I Can Turn It On and Off — Baratz
"I Think I Need a New Heart" — Merritt

Mix Tape — Baratz
"Help Me" — Joni Mitchell
"Just Like This Train" — Mitchell
Departing Figure — Baratz
"You Can Leave Your Hat On" — Newman

Scores, as usual, available on request.

April 03, 2007

Post-Minimalist Weekend Post

I stepped out of my usual composerly circles to join the musicology department for a symposium with Robert Fink (UCLA). As predicted, he essentially did highlights from Repeating Ourselves. Since I'd read the book before, what I learned from the session was tangential to the actual presentation, but is still a interesting important point: if I want to sit around a table where the majority of those present are intelligent and assertive women, musicology functions are a sure bet.

Saturday was Steve Reich Day, with a symposium in the afternoon and a concert in the evening. The centerpiece of the symposium was hearing his newish Daniel Variations. After castigating a big chunk of us for not knowing who Daniel Pearl was ("Well, you should."), he explained how he met Pearl's father and was asked to write a piece about Pearl. The piece sets fragmentary texts from Pearl's writings and the biblical Book of Daniel (which involves a conflict between Jews and Babylonians).

Following the listening, was an extended Q&A. Not a lot of new info for anyone who hasn't read any interviews with or writings by Reich, but he made one interesting comment that stuck with me. Asked about the efficacy of politicized art, he said he had no illusions about saving the world. "Guernica" didn't prevent Dresden and Tokyo, but it made Guernica part of our vocabulary.

The concert in the evening covered his whole career: Drumming (Part One), Cello Counterpoint, Different Trains, and Sextet. Drumming changed a lot live. Thanks to Kilbourn Hall's natural wetness, there was some harmonies hung in the air after each attack. You could follow the cellular transformations, courtesy of having the visual of the performers. The drums were left standing on-stage before and after the piece, à la gamelan.

Cello Counterpoint was done with 8 live cellists, though with some amplification to balance out the lines. It bore a striking resemblance, harmonically and structurally to Triple Quartet. I had a similar bout of déjà vu (but not quite as strong) during Sextet, with the point of comparison being Music for 18 Musicians. Self-plagiarism doesn't offend me that much, but why has Reich dodged the bullet on this one when Glass has gotten so much flack?

I would like to use this page to inaugurate the "Different Trains...Not So Much a Fan" Club. First of all, kudos to Reich for making a 180-degree turn on his early aesthetic and turning out a text-based piece of program music (love those violins doubling the taped train whistles). The speech-as-music bit is fun, but not fun enough to steal the title for "Best Setting of the Word 'Chicago'" from Harry Partch.

My real problem with the piece is with the content of the program. The "different trains" conceit is reasonably clever, but not 27' clever. There's just not enough behind it to propel the piece for that duration. It doesn't present any major challenges to my ethical imagination. I know more than I want to know about the inhumanity of the Holocaust. Nuremberg more than adequately documented that. By 1988, I'd hope that an artist could have gone deeper into the material.

For me, Sophie's Choice is the exemplar of asking the hard questions on this terrain. Styron was willing (I'd say he even went out of his way) to find humanity among Nazis. Because of that, the eponymous choice becomes much, much more than you'd suspect. Reich only deals with one side of the situation in his quartet, and in turn is only able to present a victim's story. Targets of genocide deserve to have more than their victimization preserved.


[UPDATE: I neglected one important tidbit, which was that the Reich concert had a basically full house. When the usher came out to do the fire exit spiel, we got "Good eve— wow" instead of the usual "Good evening and welcome to Kilbourn Hall."]


Pictures from the show, courtesy of John Lam:


Cello Counterpoint
Cello Counterpoint

Different Trains