Tag Archives: contemporary

Music That Evolves


Lots of things Evolve: history, landscapes, relationships, your entire life! Even the size, shape and character of the universe is constantly changing. It’s all a work in progress, with Mother Nature leaving nothing stationary. The music itself Evolves from chaos to beauty. Evolve chronicles the process, which is similar for all of the above, and more. Pick something you’re familiar with that is still evolving, and listen along for stages and turning points.

Examples:

-The Universe Evolves: from perfect silence and nothingness, a slight little wobble off balance of the most basic chemical elements leads to a building tension. When they can no longer contain themselves, they erupt into a violent explosion that sets everything (and I mean “everything’) in motion. Chaos and disorganization spews out from the center with no rhyme, reason or destination, until stars can fly without constantly hitting each other, and things finally start to settle down.
There’s still very little sense to things, but gravity takes hold and begins to form galaxies, systems and spheres. From a distance, beauty takes shape but up close, the volcanic turmoil continues. Even after much time, landscapes cool, but trouble still bubbles beneath. Always changing, but in smaller ways, predictable patterns of shapes and currents become beauty and wonder. Though the music ends at this point, there may still be more to come.

-A Life Evolves: a microscopic change of plans bursts into an unstoppable and multifaceted explosion of growth. It takes some time before a recognizable form takes place, but even childhood awkwardness goes from cute to brilliant over time. As we all know, unsettled stages of turmoil can come at any time, and usually do. Often torn between our impulsive youth and a responsible future, years of emotional peaks and valleys lie ahead. Maturity usually brings a little order, confidence and stability.

-Relationships Evolve: An often directionless chance meeting can lead from one thing to another. Discovering another’s personality is challenging, yet inspiring. Held together by a personal gravity, navigating the twists and turns is fraught with emotion and tension. Periods of bliss regenerate the experience, and help us through tough times. Experience and familiarity brings happiness.

-Humanity Evolves: We all know the physical changes man has made since the amoeba, but when you follow that with thousands of years of intellectual development, historical upheaval and wars, our own work in progress seems like only few moments in time. From a daily struggle for survival, to periods of invention and industry. From dark ages and enlightenment, to Teslas and terror. It sometimes seems like one step forward, and one step back. This too, is still playing out in search of nirvana.

-Music Evolves: from ancient dissonant noisemakers and unpitched instruments, came rhythms and simple, crude and imperfect melodies. Beneath it all was the natural beauty of harmony rooted in physical science. Musicians and composers can only marvel at its impact, and try to unlock its secrets. That holy grail of reaching the perfect aural sunset, is often at the end of a very difficult road. But, beauty is often fleeting, and the forces of nature keep things moving. So, once the goal is in sight, it’s easier to plot a path to that golden sunset moment.

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Classical Music’s Need for Speed

Is faster really better? Classical music performances are expected to be meticulous, impeccable and proficiently accurate. Artists hope to be called a “virtuso.”  All the thousands of notes must be delivered spot-on. So what then, distinguishes one soloist or ensemble from another performing the same timeless piece?

Interpretation is what it’s called, but what are the boundaries of interpretation in classical music? At least in jazz, that door is wide open. Musicians can choose their own notes and rhythms for a solo passage. Not so in classical. The only things that can be messed with are tempo and dynamics (loudness/softness). The notes (with only few exceptions) are etched in stone.

On paper, in the sheet music, tempo is notated with the use of descriptive words, not numbers: largo, moderato, andante, vivace. The dynamics are also written in a flexible way: pianissimo, piano, mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, forte and fortissimo. Relative speed and volume are a matter of  taste.

This is why you might hear mood swings of tempo or dynamic variations. Given how lengthy some classical pieces are, you probably won’t hear an orchestra play one piece the same way another orchestra would. A familiar passage might clip along nicely as the New York Phil plays it, yet be noticeably drawn out by the LA Phil. What sounds soft and gentle in Boston, may be much more assertive in Chicago. This is really the only way for a conductor, ensemble or soloist to make a name for themselves, and deliver something in a way you may have never heard it before.

The familiar classical repertoire (the pieces we all know and love) is essentially a collection of cover tunes, played by different groups hoping to not sound just like the last one that played it.

But, with so little wiggle-room in interpretation, how does an artist stand out from the others and get noticed? For a soloist, usually the answer is speed. If you can play a difficult passage faster than someone else, an audience is more likely to be wowed by your performance. Fair enough, but what does that do to the music? How did the composer want it to sound? Will some notes fly by so imperceptibly fast that they will never be heard? Will some parts drag so slowly that you’ll lose the sense of melody, waiting for the next note?

Take for example, Tchaikovsky’s famous 1st Piano Concerto… a piece so well known, even listeners who are not regular classical concertgoers would notice variations. There are tens of thousands of notes, hundreds of multi-note runs, and many of Tchaikovsky’s signature grace notes (quick neighboring notes). The faster it’s played, the fewer the notes that can be savored, or even heard. A 64-note run can fly by in a 1.5-second blink of an eye.

However, knowing what we know about the composer, he may have even meant it to be just a challenge, that only a limited number of people can accomplish.

Still, some of the beauty and harmony of the music is often lost to the racing competition by its performers. You simply cannot enjoy a sound that lasts only a millisecond.

Composer Saint-Saëns was much the same. He was a child keyboard prodigy, and his piano works are often only played by those with hands as fast as the composer’s. For a composer to achieve fame in his or her lifetime, they too customize their music so that only they could play it. But, as pianist Arthur Rubinstein reached his later years, he began playing more deliberately, even  the Saint-Saëns pieces. As you can see in a number of YouTube videos with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, as Rubinstein reached the age of 88, the musicality was much easier to appreciate without the flare and ferocity, that he was famous for as a younger man.

The need for speed is not unique to competitive soloists and small ensembles. Conductors will often push orchestral musicians to the envelope of their abilities with faster moments, and (even in the same piece) draw out the slower phrases to a snail’s pace, just for contrast.

So, that leaves us with a dilemma. What IS a good interpretation? As always, that depends on your interpretation of the interpretation. Given the limitations, is it okay with you that liberties taken with tempo and dynamics often change the character and flow of melodies to the point of distraction? Are you excited and impressed by extremes in performance, or would you prefer to hear the music without histrionics? Do the composer’s intentions have any relevance, or are artists free to manipulate?

Perhaps, as we hear different interpretations of the compositions we enjoy the most, we’ll reach our own conclusions about whose version was best. I’ve heard several recordings conducted by and performed by the composers themselves, that I thought weren’t as good as others I had heard. It is a matter of personal taste. Yet, I am always aware that every performer’s first job is to impress the audience, not just faithfully play a difficult work without any mistakes. Some musicians may see performance as an extreme sport, and pushing boundaries should be encouraged. But sometimes it can be distracting,

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Do You Like the Lights On or Off?

Do You Want the Lights On, or Off?
… when listening to classical music? Do you like to close your eyes, or watch what’s going on? There are, of course, pros and cons to both.

Lights On:
Watching a great performance can be like the olympics. Musicians don’t just sit or stand there. It’s a physically demanding task that requires much control over both subtle and forceful movements . It takes a real physical talent.

If you’ve never been a musician yourself, one might think that all the histrionics are contrived and exaggerated. That’s not usually so. Many classical musicians often see themselves on video and gasp in embarrassment when they view their own contortions. It’s not always pretty to watch, but it still can be very exciting and entertaining.

No doubt, every profession has its drama queens. But, you just can’t get emotional music from your instrument by sitting stoically. Liszt composed very challenging pieces, and certainly let one know it by his performance. He was, perhaps, the flamboyant Liberace’s biggest influence.

A “micro” experience, like a performance video full of closeups, brings you closer to the details of the work. It’s the difference between viewing a painting with a magnifying glass to appreciate every brush stroke, and viewing it from 6-feet away, to take in the whole effect.

A “macro” experience, can leave you feeling like you’ve engaged all your senses. Like fireworks and the 1812 Overture, it adds a larger real-life dimension to the music. It can excite your brainwaves on many levels.

Declining concert attendances are forcing orchestras to think of new, and often visual ways to draw and entertain a crowd. A good music-synched show can brighten the score with flourish and bling.

But, do visuals (other than musicians performing) always bring attention to the music itself? Film and ballet scores have always added to storytelling, but can an accompanying plot enhance the music? Some say, the best film music is never heard, because it promotes the story so well, you don’t even know it’s there.

And then there’s YouTube. Now a primary source of music listening for millions, the classical music video collection is ballooning. Granted, some of them are only still photos of a composer or old album cover.

Unlike pop musicians, classical musicians aren’t always young and sexy, so the videos tend to be less storytelling, and more performance related.

Lights Off:
Shouldn’t music be heard, and not seen? Sounds are not visible, and we only use one of our five senses to hear them. Shouldn’t we isolate that sense, to avoid distractions, so we can enjoy and appreciate the subtleties of the many carefully chosen sonorities floating around our heads? The invisible twelve tones of western music mingle in so many wonderful ways. It’s as if musical notes were objects you could only see in a darkened room with a blacklight.

Much of my early adulthood was spent searching for really good headphones, speakers, tape decks and amplifiers. Now that you know about how old I am, you might understand why I find it amazing that none of that seems to matter much anymore.

Digital recordings are often compressed for sharing and streaming. Ear buds let in a lot of extraneous noise, and home audiophile systems are all but gone.

But, try this sometime:

Take the best headphones you can find, with a nice long extension to reach to your favorite recliner. Put on a quality cd recording of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Turn out the lights, so you’re not tempted to open your eyes and stare at something. Then listen carefully to the dozens of beautifully crafted complex harmonies.

Don’t surf, post, or text… just listen! If the lights were on, likely all you’d hear is the melody.

If you really want to discover what makes a Bach fugue or concerto a masterpiece of organization, find a recording of the original Switched on Bach (1968), and listen in the dark, trying to follow each different synth sound, as they play parts of equal importance. You simply can’t do this with the lights on, and objects in the room to steal your attention. It requires too much concentration.

For a Space Mountain style adventure, try this with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Be sure your easy chair has sturdy arms to grip.

To truly eliminate distractions, you might need to arrange some “alone time.” for this. But, even after sitting perfectly still, in a dark room, muted from the world through headphone muffs… if you listen carefully to all the nuances you can find, you might be exhausted after 20-minutes. Exhausted, yet exhilarated by the journey. And, you will have heard the music, not the music show.

Try it!

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The Avoidance of Harmony

It’s no secret that contemporary composers tend to avoid standard musical traditions.  What composer wants to sound like some other composer, right?  There’s so much highly structured, traditional Western European repertoire out there already, it sometimes seems like everything’s “been done.”

So, what does that leave for today’s modern composers in search of a niche?  Is it time in the history of music to reinvent the wheel,  remodel the basic structure, or even replace the foundation?

The struggle to find a new architecture seems to go back as far as Prokofiev.  His sometimes playful aversion to tonic, opened a door that has never shut.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGfWVh98p2g&feature=fvst

Richard Danielpour reaches somehwere between Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff with this piece http://youtu.be/_k7aQ62FLjA
John Cage experimented with the “prepared piano” by adding objects to the strings that would change the sound
http://youtu.be/pUTXNxFvjDw 
played amplified cacti
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pbgr74yNM7M
and even notated silence as music  
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4&feature=related

Philip Glass’ minimalist style seems to have survived the decades with monumental works like Einstein on the Beach, the beautiful Truman Sleeps
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZO3ZWSorGE&feature=fvst
and Mad Rush
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YiYnfn0kyK0&feature=share&list=AL94UKMTqg-9CxrePSXtp13JWORqWx2iJu

Though minimalism sometimes depends on repetition for character, it may seem a bit simple to some.  But, compared to more ambitious experimenters, Glass’ use of recognizable chords is less unsettling than those who would opt for dissonance as a tool:

Ellen Traaffe Zwilich
http://youtu.be/_6PjvR-IKWM

Joseph Scwantner
http://youtu.be/qo7lQMmnL1M

The search for something new, sometimes forces an almost apologetic explanation, as seen here: http://youtu.be/G9gxqLhn8-M

Many fine contemporary composers have poured their hearts and souls into the search for new and exciting formulas and sounds.  Exploration is necessary. Pushing the envelope should be encouraged and rewarded.

But, what of more mainstream modern orchestralists like Samuel Jones: http://samueljones.net/player/index.html,
Eric Whitacre:
http://ericwhitacre.com/music-catalog/orchestral/equus,
and of course, John Williams
http://youtu.be/XFNN_ADpYJ0 ?
Please comment.

Is there anything left that hasn’t “been done,” or is it time to rewrite the rules of western music, and start fresh?  Should we tear down the world’s tallest structure because it was built on a strong foundation, with tried and true construction principles? Should we “throw out the baby with the bath water?”

Is harmony all that bad?  There’s little evidence that audiences are anxious to jump with both feet into a world of ambient dissonance, and atonal ambiguity. Different can be enlightening and exciting, but it is occasionally brilliant. Experimentation, whether in music or in science, needs to be encouraged, yet challenged.

So modern composers may be charged with the task of honing the current musical models, and working with the established laws of musical nature. There are many scientific, natural and physical relationships in music (i.e.: frequencies, timing, and tonality) that form the mere definition of “music.” And technology may be the key to exploring new instruments, sounds and sonorities, without toppling the beautiful structure that took hundreds of years to build.  

Before imploding this beautiful 100-storey building to experiment with new building materials, we should first stress-test the synthetic composites, and the glue that holds them together. Will it stand the same test of time that its Parthenon of predecessors have? Remember: Bach has been dead for 263-years, and he still gets airplay on the radio every day. Embrace Harmony!

http://www.wiedemannmusic.com

The Classical Music Recession

Is classical music on life support, or simply in a cyclical recession? Certainly, its long history of survival beyond the lifespans of other types of popular music, doesn’t foreshadow an early demise. But it may be facing some significant health issues, such as aging benefactors, and a technological upheaval of its current business model.

It’s a form with a short list of superstars, unlike rock or pop. Lang Lang and Joshua Bell can guarantee a sellout. And, while you may face a waiting list of at least 6-years to see the Vienna Phil, your local orchestra may be giving away tickets to fill seats.

It’s no secret that many of the people now filling those seats are of generations that can’t keep going to concerts forever. Sure, younger ones turn out for the big names, but who will attend the next show, after Lang Lang has left town?

The aging concertgoers are often the most generous financial contributors. This could spell budgetary doom in the near future.

Money that classical ensembles once counted on from sales of recordings, is also drying up, thanks to the changing technology of music distribution. Streaming royalties are negligible compared to the profit margin from a cd sale.

You Tube has become a popular means of music discovery and free entertainment. While that can be good and bad, sparking new interest in classical might draw new audiences to live performances, or viewers may be content to watch from home for free.

So, now the question becomes, can classical find a new business model, as it has before? Some local groups are reaching out to a much younger audience, requiring musicians to spend plenty of hours in schools and other mentoring functions. Engage them while they’re young, and have many years of classical enjoyment ahead. Though it may be many years before they replace the current donors, the seeds are being planted.

But, what to do in the meantime? Even the next-up demographic expected to provide financial support, grew up with Michael Jackson, Cheap Trick, Madonna and U2. It’s going to take some doing to bring them under the tent as converts. A more contemporary program and image may be necessary. Shedding the white tie and tails could be a start.

No one seems to appreciate classical more than musicians, because it’s the most popular music for instruction. A Suzuki Violin 2nd-grader is more likely to be a classical lover than his/her non-musician parents with ipods full of Mariah Carey and Eminem.

It would be easy to say that schools are the answer to classical’s problems, but school districts in recession have cut music programs. This reduces, not only interest in classical music, but the number of classically trained musicians for the future.

The current business model that keeps classical music playing, is definitely in trouble. It may be a very long recovery. The quality of the product though, has never suffered, so the art itself will surely be with us for centuries more.

www.wiedemannmusic.com