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Stop Blaming New Music, Please!

Please click here to read a brief post I wrote on the ScoreStreet blog  about orchestral performers’ continuing to blame the programming of music by contemporary composers for their financial woes. Spoiler alert: it’s nonsense.

Song Cycle Saturday

This past Saturday, I got to spend some time with my dear friends, Frank J. Oteri and his wife, Trudy Chan.  Although their peripatetic travels have made such occurrences recent rarities, this particular occasion was unique: it was an evening of Frank’s music. Frank, is, of course, an ubiquitous and unmistakable presence at new music concerts. However, he’s there most often in his role an advocate for, and writer about, the music of other composers.

But Saturday night, his music took center stage. The concert, “Versions of Oteri,” consisted of two song cycles and two solo piano pieces, performed by Ms. Chan and the amazingly versatile Phillip Cheah, who sang both in baritone and male soprano voices, not only within the same movement, but often within the same phrase – more on that later.  Phillip also, performed one of the piano pieces and at one point even joined Trudy at the piano to play some dramatic sound clusters that concluded one of the movements of the song cycle.  (No, he doesn’t juggle. I asked.)

The performance took place at the Tenri Cultural Institute in Greenwich Village and the 90-seat space was filled to capacity with numerous other composers – no doubt a tribute to Frank but perhaps also something of a spin on Yogi Berra’s maxim that you should “always go to other people’s funerals otherwise they won’t go to yours.”  Frank’s spoken remarks about his music were brief, although he noted that he provided, as he is wont to do with other composers, lengthy and detailed program notes.

The song cycles were the focus of the concert, with the piano pieces serving as brief, but entertaining intermezzi. The first, “Versions of the Truth,” was a world premiere, consisting of settings of 12 Stephen Crane poems, he of the “Red Badge of Courage.” Frank described the poems as truly weird. So, he is just the composer to set such oddities! He wrote the cycle specifically for Phillip and Trudy and the vocal writing encompassed the lowest registers of Phillip’s baritone as a well as the highest of his soprano – and everything in between.

The second song cycle which concluded the concert, “the nurturing river,” had more personal resonance for me, partly because of the style of the writing but also because of its unusual back story. Frank had set a series of fourteen sonnets by his former teacher and long-time friend and sometime musical collaborator, James R. Murphy. Murphy was in attendance, along with his son, both of whom Frank has played with over the years in the neo-Bluegrass group, “The String Messengers” and it was at those performances I first met the Murphys.

Frank wrote the piece in 1982. As he and I are the same age, I thought about what I was writing in 1982: a few solo piano works, a duet for clarinet, but nothing so ambitious. I hadn’t even started writing songs yet. As Frank explained, the work was deemed impossible to sing by several singers. And so it remained until more than two decades later when he met Phillip.

Although I had heard a couple of the movements performed last year, Saturday marked the first complete public performance of the cycle. And to my ears and amazement, this work seemed to me even more ideally and idiosyncratically suited to Phillip’s specialized vocal skills than the piece that he’d actually written for him. Phrases that changed registers and timbres seemed fluid and natural – something that would be nearly impossible if the work were sung by a male and female singer. Somehow, Frank must have been channeling Phillip, someone who was very young and living many thousands of miles away when the work was written.

As to the solo piano interludes, the first, “Palindrome,” consisted of the working through of various combinations and permutations of a single short phrase, incorporating both serialist and minimalist techniques. As a work from Frank’s student days at Columbia, it did have a certain academic, experimental air to it. The second piano piece, “Setting the World at Five and Seven” was a jauntier effort, juxtaposing 5-beat and 7-beat rhythmic cycles over a 12-bar blues progression.

Prior to joining Frank, Trudy and Phillip for a post-concert dinner, I told Phillip and Trudy that I’d written the music for a new song, one that will exploit Phillip’s unique vocal skills in a humorous and perhaps schizophrenic way. Now I just have to write the lyrics.  I’ll have to do that in between teaching, getting  ScoreStreet going and launching my new Legal Tune-up service specially formulated for composers and other creative types.  Meanwhile, I hope Frank finds more time to write music and that there are more performances of his varied, expressive and enjoyable works.

But first, I’ll have to reply to his NewMusicBox post in which he takes issue with some post-concert conversation wherein I and another songwriter friend of his maintained that writing lyrics is harder than writing the music.  If you’re writing a verse-chorus song, for example, one verse and one chorus and you’re done with the music. One and done doesn’t cut it with the words.

So Nu, Music?

As many of my friends and colleagues know, I’ve been working for nearly two years on launching a comprehensive new promotion, publishing and licensing service for classical and jazz composers. Needing a break from dealing with the travails of software application development and the cast of characters involved, I decided last night to actually go out and listen to some of the music that inspired me to pursue what is a seemingly Quixotic quest to do something radical to help composers of new music.

As a preface, I was frequently asked back when I was running the New York office of a prominent classical music publishing company why I was signing jazz composers like Paquito D’Rivera and Andrew Hill, among others.  Among the responses I would give were things like they’re both taught in colleges and conservatories, are performed in concert halls and require a similar sophistication and study of compositional and performance skills.  And they have similar demographics in the marketplace.

The music I heard last night made me once again consider an even more radical reason: it’s all new music. And while there is plenty of contemporary music in both the classical (and I use the term to include “concert”, “serious” and “new music”) and jazz camps that are more firmly rooted in their respective traditions, I suspect that listeners who were unfamiliar with the artists and how they’ve been “branded” would be hard-pressed to classify the musical offerings I heard yesterday as definitely either classical or jazz.

First, I attended a concert of two short sets:  one by Missy Mazzoli and her group, Victoire and the other by the Vijay Iyer trio. With respect to Mr. Iyer’s music, he’s clearly been labeled as a jazz composer –  he’s won a fistful of Downbeat awards this year –  and the piano trio is one of the most traditional of jazz ensembles.  But the music he played had little if any of the trappings of traditional jazz. The drummer didn’t groove on a traditional swing beat. In fact, for long stretches he didn’t keep time at all.  And to my ears, the musical structures and harmonies Vijay composed seemed closer to the classical tradition than to that of jazz.

As for Victoire’s performance, the ensemble of two voices, clarinet, keyboards, violin, double bass, two female singers and electronics wouldn’t immediately strike someone as classical music if they were merely accustomed to hearing symphonies and string quartets.  The works Victoire performed certainly would fit nicely on a program with those of Mr. Iyer and the other “jazz” performer I heard last night. And yet, Ms. Mazzoli is signed to G. Schirmer, another prominent classical publishing company and she does write works for more traditional musical groupings. Last night, however, she presented her works as performed by her own ensemble, reminiscent of a more recent “classical” tradition epitomized by Reich and Glass, composers now regarded as classical – but not back when they first toured with their respective groups.

Then there’s last night’s the third group: Scott Robinson’s Doctette, which performed last night at the Jazz Standard.  Mr. Robinson, an established jazz saxophonist and composer,  presented a set of his compositions inspired by the Doc Savage pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. And while an ensemble of piano, bass, drums and percussion, with Mr. Robinson on various winds, is a traditional jazz format, the inclusion of theremin and the rare, monolithic, awe-inspiring contrabass sax is not.  And like Mr. Iyer’s music earlier in the evening, there wasn’t much in the way of traditional swing beats and the music sounded far more like the music I hear at Zankel Hall than at a jazz club like the Jazz Standard.  And yet none of the music I heard last night sounded anything like the “third-stream” experiments of the post-war period, either.

The other day, my good friend, Frank J. Oteri, writing in NewMusicBox about accordionist, Guy Klucevsek’s album, Polka from the Fringe, concluded, “the next time someone comes up to you claiming to be able to define new music, tell him or her to listen to these recordings.”  I offer a corollary: the next time someone tries to draw lines separating what’s classical and what’s jazz these days,  tell him or her to listen to Mazzoli, Iyer, Robinson and a whole host of genre-bending new music composer/performers.