New Music Gathering, 2015

I spent a large part of the past few days at the first annual New Music Gathering, here in San Francisco. It was great to see so many people who write, perform, appreciate, support, and otherwise enjoy new music come together to share ideas. Presentations covered all kinds of topics related to new music, relating to audiences, preparing a piano, music criticism, women in new music, etc. There were concerts, there were talks, panels, conversations over lunch, meeting of new people, reuniting with old friends. #NMG2015 was the first conference I’ve been to, and overall I’d like to say I enjoyed the experience!

Thanks to everyone involved who made this event happen, and here’s hoping it becomes a lasting part of the new music community!

Here are some photos from my presentation on Henry Cowell from the first day of the conference:

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And here’s one of the crowded cafe in the San Francisco Conservatory in a brief break between panels:

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Distinctive Sounds at the Sixth Annual Switchboard Music Festival

Characteristically distinctive sounds rang out throughout the day during the sixth annual Switchboard Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, March 24, 2013. This was the third year in a row the festival has been held at the Brava Theater in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. The Brava is easily accessible by public transportation or car (although parking can be a nightmare), and makes a great venue for the festival. I hope they are able to continue using the space for many more years to come. Just like last year’s festival, Switchboard incorporated elements of local culture into their show, including a food truck parked right out front selling Indian food. Unfortunately, the food didn’t agree with some of the audience as well as last year’s truck did, I heard several festival attendees complaining of indigestion as the night wore on. Thankfully, the music suffered no ill effects.

Composer, accordionist, and multi-instrumentalist Rob Reich (photo credit: robreich.com)

Composer, accordionist, and multi-instrumentalist Rob Reich (photo credit: robreich.com)

The 8-hour marathon concert began at 2:00 PM with a set performed by the Rob Reich Quintet, featuring compositions by Reich, its multi-instrumentalist band leader. The quintet’s performance set the tone for this year’s festival very well. The tunes each showed influence from a different musical tradition (or sometimes several at once) including blues, pop, rock, and jazz. While most of the set was “composed” music, each piece featured improvised breaks from members of the quintet. Even though a hugely diverse set of influences was showcased, the set was held together by a post-minimalist groove-oriented and somewhat up-beat feeling characteristic of the “switchboard sound.”

It is totally wonderful that Switchboard is so committed to promoting the intersection of multiple styles and genres, and presenting acts from different musical traditions. However, even though I heard bands and ensembles from all corners of the country and the musical world, they all were connected musically. Each group had their own sound, yes, but Switchboard has a “genre.” It’s part of what makes the festival unique: unlike some other festivals (for example Hot Air at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music or Other Minds) Switchboard is unified by this distinct sound each of its performers share in a clearly discernible manner. In many ways the festival is a mini-series of sets each looking at the same sound-theme through the colors and instrumentations of many different performers. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s actually kind of cool. This year’s theme was improvisation. Several groups, including Areon Flutes’ world-premiere performance of Cornelius Boots’ Chthonic Suite and Billygoat’s performance of their multimedia pieces Lyric and Sophia performed music that was clearly composed. But most of the other sets I heard all had strong improvisatory styles.

A new addition to this year’s festival were Robin Estrada’s Paanyaya Interlude Pieces, performed during breaks on tongatong (bamboo tubes), bungkaka (bamboo buzzers), patetteg (bamboo plates), and saggeypo (bamboo pipes). Never before (to my knowledge) has Switchboard employed roving bands of performers winding through the theater between sets. Each interlude piece had a slightly different character, although due to the quiet nature of the bamboo instruments and the high volume of the audience chatter during the set breaks it was hard to listen with much attentiveness. I’ll be curious to see if Switchboard continues with the idea of interlude music between their sets in the future. I was sorry to miss hearing ZOFO and Sqwonk this year. The two ensembles come together in a performance of Jonathan Russell’s Sqwonkzoforus Rex, which I had the pleasure of hearing last year. I remember really enjoying the piece, and would have liked to hear it again.

David Klein and Nick Woolley of Billygoat (photo credit: Billygoat)

David Klein and Nick Woolley of Billygoat (photo credit: Billygoat)

The final three sets on the festival built to a raucous conclusion. Billygoat’s exquisitely whimsical stop-motion animation accompanied by their own musical performance was quietly wonderful. The ensemble Build then proceeded to do just that, building up sounds throughout their set. The final act on this year’s festival was Subharmonic, a new-ish band headed by the Jazz Mafia creator Adam Theis. Featuring five multi-instrumentalists and a little heavy on the brass, the band was really cool but amplified to ear-bending levels. I left after the first few songs and continued to listen from the lobby, where the volume was more to my tastes.

Overall, Switchboard 2013 was a wonderful experience. It was great to see a nearly full audience during the peak hours, as well as many dedicated marathon concert fans who stayed the whole time. In contrast with audiences at most modern music events, there were a large number of older attendees, perhaps indicating that Switchboard has become enough of a part of the music establishment in San Francisco to begin attracting an audience beyond the usual new-music-junkie suspects.

Originally published on I Care If You Listen on 4/12/2013

 

A Man Made of Music: Joel Sachs on Henry Cowell

 

I just finished reading Joel Sachs’ new book, Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music for the third time. I had previously read it for my own pleasure, and I was delighted to be asked to review it. I’ve read an enormous amount of material on Henry Cowell (although nowhere near as much as Sachs has!), and I must say, this book is by far the best comprehensive biography available. Sachs speaks of the “indigestion” that followed reading every piece of paper associated with Henry Cowell plus background information on San Francisco history, 1920s politics, and so forth. Perhaps it took a while to digest all that information, but the resulting book is well worth the wait. It is a wonderful read, both accessible and informative, full of information and stories so vivid you can’t help but be drawn into Cowell’s life. From Cowell’s humble beginnings at the Menlo Park of the late nineteenth century—then a muddy stretch of nothing worlds from the Silicon Valley suburb it is today—the book chronicles a life so full of adventures it could be a novel.

Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell was much more than the composer of such experimental piano pieces as “The Banshee” and “Tides of Manaunaun.” He is without a doubt one of the single most influential figures in 20th century American music. He wrote a vast catalogue of compositions in a wide variety of styles for practically every possible combination of the usual instruments and some less familiar, including thunder-sticks, shakuhachi, Koto, tap-dancer, and Léon Theremin’s lesser known project, the Rhythmicon—an instrument capable of producing rhythms so complicated no human musician could perform them accurately (the rhythmicon was built to Cowell’s specifications). Cowell created such organizations as the New Music Society (with the associated publications including New Music Quarterly, Orchestra Series, and New Music Recordings), and the Pan-American Association of Composers. He was one of the first Western advocates for musics from around the world, and helped bring such composers as Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Ives to the attention of the public. Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage, and Lou Harrison credit Cowell’s influence in their life’s work. Besides his compositions and texts, Cowell contributed much to western music: he was one of the first composers to use sounds from outside the western chromatic scale, thus planting the seeds of “noise” as music. Both Berg and Bartok requested his permission to use tone-clusters in their work.

In addition to his influence on American music, Cowell traveled the world and brought his influence with him. Still today the Cowell drumming prize is awarded every year in India. Cowell was one of the composers asked to write a Singaporean National Anthem (although his was not selected in the end). He was the first American composer/performer to be invited to tour soviet Russia – in May of 1929 he played concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. His music was performed, broadcast, or published in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, North and South America.

Even Cowell’s tragic years in San Quentin couldn’t prevent him from working on his projects: he wrote a book, several articles, and countless arrangements, small pieces, and lectures while serving time for what his prosecutor felt was a trivial morals charge. Speaking of which: now that papers and other materials have been made available, Sachs has been able to clear up much of the stir around Cowell’s guilty plea and subsequent imprisonment. The book goes into great detail about the legal ins and outs of the whole affair, but suffice to say there would have been no crime nor trial in today’s much less puritanical world.

Henry Cowell A Man Made of MusicWhat makes Sachs’ work different from other materials I’ve read concerning Cowell’s life, especially the more controversial aspects of his sexuality and his time in San Quentin Penitentiary in California, is his ability to weed through the enormous volume of previously unavailable material and find the objective voice in what has up to now been primarily rumor and myth. Sachs’ book presents an inclusive and (mostly) chronological biography detailing everything from Cowell’s boyhood activities through Sidney Cowell’s memories of his last year. Sachs succeeds in showing Cowell as truly human. In the conclusion, Sachs asks himself “after getting to know Cowell so intimately, do I still like him?” and concludes “most definitely,” that “[Cowell] thought of himself as a man made of music, but he was also a man made of ideas and action. Full of fun, and a lover of life, he intended to get the most out of it and bring the most to it. His finest gift was his music at its best.”

Out of all the material on Cowell I’ve read (an extensive and still growing list), Joel Sachs’ book is the first truly comprehensive biography I’ve encountered. There are other books that cover bits and pieces of Cowell’s life quite well, in fact Sachs doesn’t cover the New Music Society years in any great depth in his work but instead points the reader toward Rita Mead’s excellent book on the topic, Henry Cowell’s New Music (1925-1936). There is enough information packed into this book that I think I’ll be reading it at least another 3 times (and probably learning more and enjoying it all over again each time through!) It reads very smoothly, and is filled with just the right amount of humor to balance out what was at times a very difficult life. While one could sit down and read any given chapter/section, the book read from cover to cover flows together into a very complete biography of a man who is—in my opinion—one of music history’s most unjustly neglected figures.

Originally published on I Care If You Listen, 1/22/13

 

Cowell Again

I’m super excited that the blog I write for, I Care If You Listen, has asked me to review Joel Sachs‘ book Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music. Awaiting the official review copy, and eagerly anticipating re-reading the book a couple times and sharing a little of what makes this book so special with you.

In other news, I’ll be playing Exultation (a perennial favorite) in a faculty „special appearance“ on a student recital for the music school I teach at. I’m guessing it will be the first Cowell most of the audience (students, parents, and guests) has ever heard. Perhaps I can pass on to someone else my love of this music. Hey, it happened to me – what’s to stop it happening to someone else 🙂

Still chipping away slooooooowly with the Complete Cowell project, my progress has slowed a little due to a super hectic schedule (9 jobs plus some serious martial arts training). But fear not, I am still working away!

SF Symphony plays Sam Adams and Mahler

Pairing Samuel Carl Adams‘ new work Drift and Providence with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was a bold move on the San Francisco Symphony’s part and also undoubtably placed a lot of pressure on Adams, who already has a lot to live up to (so would you if your father was John Adams). While some on the audience were clearly there for the Mahler and merely tolerating the west coast premiere occupying the first half of the concert, most of those seated around me appeared quite open to the idea of hearing something new. The ones who listened were rewarded with a well-thought-out journey through a musical landscape scattered with enough “landmarks” to keep the ear from wandering.

Samuel Carl Adams

Samuel Carl Adams

Drift and Providence is structured around what Adams refers to in Scott Foglesong’s program note as “three imagined places,” with the two “Drift” movements leading from each “place” to the next. All five movements are performed without pause, although Adams makes wonderful use of silences. “Silences,” Adams says,  ”can be really loud.” In Drift and Providence silences don’t always mean the same thing, “early in the piece they heighten the tentative or lost quality, and towards the end they serve a heightened sense of intensity.”

The piece began with a rubbed-cowbell drone, which quickly grew into a wash of Ravel-like string figurations swirling around the more clearly defined melodies. In addition to the strings brass and woodwinds, Drift and Providence is scored for an impressive battery of percussion including timpani, vibraphones, sizzle cymbals, bass drum, low toms, brake drums, snare, sandpaper blocks, crotales, tam-tam, large and medium triangles, cowbells, and gong. The percussions were lightly amplified and processed through a laptop run by the composer at the back of the hall. Some of the percussion effects were reminiscent of some of Adams’ other works I’ve heard performed over the past two years including the Tension Studies (No. 1 and No. 2) for guitar and percussion (also with laptop). This intrepid use of texture permeated the entire five movement work, and helped give Adams’ music a unique sound.

I was especially appreciative of the careful use of subtle amplification and processing in combination with “traditional” playing. The blend between live performance in the “classical” style and electronic elements was absolutely seamless, and achieved, I think, what many other attempts at mixes of the two haven’t: a complete unification and blending of sounds both live and electronic. Adams indeed found ways of blending sounds together than reminded me strongly of impressionism, but not in a sappy, pseudo-French way. This music had its own voice, its own sound. It had swirls of sound rushing chaotically around points and lines that emerged from the texture like trees pushing up out of the fog. Clear, easily heard, but never in danger of clashing with the overall soundscape.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the SFS in the Opening Concert of the American Mavericks Festival.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the SFS in the Opening Concert of the American Mavericks Festival in March 2012.

The program notes—which seem to be based on an interview with Adams—indicated that Drift and Providence was composed in many different locations. This may have added to the piece’s feeling of searching for (and finding) a sort of foundation amongst swirls of sonic fog. While the movement titles are all also real places, (Divisidaro and Embarcadero are both streets in San Francisco, and Providence is the capital of Rhode Island) the movements were not, in fact, inspired by these real places. Instead, Adams was trying to capture internal or imaginary places.

Interestingly, I thought that the Mahler was a good companion piece to Drift and Providence. I commend the San Francisco Symphony for pairing Adams with an established work, thereby putting it on equal footing with the standard repertoire. The Mahler contrasted nicely with the Adams, and principal trumpeter Mark Inouye grabbed our attention with his opening solo. Michael Tilson Thomas took a tempo that was too slow for my tastes, but the audience clearly enjoyed the performance and gave a lengthly standing ovation.

Previously posted on I Care If You Listen, 10/10/2012

 

Vexations review

The Vexations marathon-style performance I was involved in a few weeks back is now featured in a piece (review?) on New Music Box! It’s interesting to read about this from an audience perspective. Also makes me squirm seeing an actual review of my playing in print. From the article:

„By the time Kelsey Walsh slid onto the bench at 9 p.m, her straightforward, unvarying approach seemed a surprising and radical choice by comparison. It also allowed for a completely different relationship to the piece from the audience’s perspective. The three performers before her explored as many facets of this tiny gem as they could and, in so doing, explored aspects of their own musical and emotional selves to uncover what they could bring to such a small amount of material. But by not doing any of this excavation, Walsh instead handed the audience a steady point to meditate on, putting the exploratory work into each listener’s hands and showing that the least varied could in some ways be the most rewarding.“

Vexations – newmusicbox/Sid Chen

Music School: preparing for the real world?

I recently posted a link to an article that proposed that a) the symphony orchestra is dying and b) a way to solve many of the problems faced by recent graduates of music school would be to require them to double major in business. This post generated conversation which led me to want to expand upon my opinions. First, a disclaimer: most of what follows (all of it, to be honest) comes from my personal experience and the experiences of my friends and is therefore not at all scientific, nor does it apply to all schools or even to all majors within my own school. It does represent a perspective (mine) on the school vs. real life issue, that may or may not be relevant to other people who study or practice music. Whether or not you agree with the following is irrelevant. It presents an opinion based on a set of experiences and posits a possible shift of paradigm towards creating an environment more conducive to these sorts of “doing stuff” opportunities. The second disclaimer: Any creative spelling or insane grammar I blame completely on the large cupcake and huge quantity of caffeinated beverage I just consumed. It’s almost 6 PM. I’m currently 12 hours into my day (it won’t end until after I take two different kinds of transit home from a concert that I finish playing in about 4 and a half hours). I am after all a working musician.

While I was a student, I sought out all kinds of experiences and opportunities. I stretched myself thin in order to squeeze every possible drop out of my education. I had several forms of motivation to do this: the encouragement of those teachers and mentors who knew me well, some pressure from my family, and a lot of pressure/motivation from within myself. As a result of this, my third year at a conservatory I was, in addition to taking a more-than-full class load, directing a new music festival, single-handedly running the student concert series I founded, and auditing a course with a world-famous prof at a nearby university at the urging of one of my professors. Around this same time I enrolled in my conservatory’s class designed to prepare students in the final year (or two) of their study for the “real world.” I say “designed to” deliberately. In reality, the class was a bit of a joke, and mostly a couple of hours  week in which you could do your homework for other classes, sleep with your eyes open, mentally practice, or text under your desk. Nobody cared, everyone hated it, and I don’t know about the rest of the class, but I didn’t learn a thing. Or, if I did, it was so wrapped up in the bored stupor that pervaded the classroom that I forgot it again within a week. To put this in context: I wasn’t the kind of student who didn’t study. I was on the dean’s list every semester but one, and that one due to a technicality (incomplete jury grade due to an overuse injury. See? I worked too hard).

A huge percentage of what I now know (much of which has helped me get and keep my current employment) I learned by doing. All of the “doing” I did while in school happened without the approval (let alone support) of my private teacher. Example: my teacher found out I was directing the new music festival the week of the festival, and then only because she happened to see my name on the flier. If I had asked for help at any point, I would have been chastised for “doing too much,” told to drop the project, and would probably (based on what I heard from studio mates) have had my grade lowered. This same criticism, that we were “doing too much” was aimed at any unfortunate member of my studio who made the unforgivable mistake of leaving the music they were learning for our (required for graduation) accompanying class in their bag on lesson day. I only made that mistake once: I never ever asked for help or suggestions on anything my teacher hadn’t specifically assigned me again. I relay this information not because of anything to do with my lessons (whole different set of issues and none of your beeswax either), but because it illustrated the barriers set between students and “learning by doing” while in school. If doing anything besides practicing repertoire picked out by the teacher for juries (entirely from the standard repertoire, with Prokofiev and Scriabin as “modern” works) results in criticism (in some cases this criticism is represented by grading) in an educational environment where the private teacher basically owns the students’ musical lives for 2-4 years, very few students will actively seek out “learning by doing” opportunities.

Given the above information, I now point out to you, my reader, that in the case of each of my current jobs I’ve been hired almost entirely based on experience I gathered (without my teacher’s support or approval) doing things. I learned how to run a music festival and direct a concert series, how to work with other people, how to be professional, how to work on my own, how to fit into any situation that might arise. I learned to improvise, I learned to say no, I learned to say yes (and go learn how to do it later), I learned that I can get by with very little sleep when necessary. I learned how to create and distribute promotional materials, I successfully coordinated over 150 people’s schedules to make an 8-hour-long marathon concert containing 10 hours worth of music in three separate halls (including an opera) flow smoothly. (Side note: the music festival is still going, as is the concert series. Hooray for lasting impressions!) In other words, I learned how the real world works. Nothing is perfect, things happen, and you deal with it. You can’t get stressed, you can’t throw a fit, and you can’t drop a project at the last minute because you’re “too busy” unless you never want to be hired again. The music world is a very small world. The new music world, smaller still. In addition to picking up these very marketable skilled, by the time I graduated I had more than a year’s worth of actual work experience on my resume.

So, back to the original issue. If the culture of a conservatory were altered just a little bit, so that teachers supported students’ active rolls in the community more, this kind of experience would be common. I’m not implying that all studio teachers are ogres who never let students do anything worth while. Instead, I’m commenting that my education in a conservatory setting would have been much easier to navigate had I had full teacher support. Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is to realize that a student is driven in a certain direction and help that student progress instead of trying to force that student to fit into a standardized educational model. Not that everything wrong with a conservatory education is the fault of the faculty! Far from it! A large part of the fault (if you want to even call it that) lies with the students. I’ve known plenty of people who do nothing but practice. Those who don’t end up flunking out of school (yes, you can flunk out of music school for academic reasons. Lots of people do.) are almost unanimously unable to find employment. Not only do they have no real experience, they have also learned to be unprofessional, to skip appointments, to look down on learning, and flaunt a lack of respect for education in a field still fighting with charges of elitism. Smart move? Probably not.

As institutions, there isn’t very much music schools can or should change. Many do have programs designed to introduce music students to the business side of life. However, a few small policy and attitude changes could at least pave the way for students to create more chances for themselves. Studio teachers having less of a death grip on students’ musical lives during their degree programs would help. Perhaps a way around this would be to allow all students (even undergrads, yes) at least some say in their repertoire choices. Another would be to encourage thinking off the beaten trail. Sure, there are benefits to learning a balanced program. Yes, I see a point in making students represent the four major eras of music history on their jury programs, at least for the first two years. In the case of my school the catalogue is actually quite forgiving. The first two years are closely regulated, but the second two offer ever greater freedom of choice. The actual description of a senior program’s requirements are “an hour of music of the applicants choice.” Take away the unwritten rules “all undergrads must at all times be playing a polyphonic work by Bach, a sonata by Beethoven (or Mozart/Haydn if they can’t play, or Schubert if you want to bug one of the other faculty members who hates Schubert), a major 19th century work (Chopin or Liszt preferred, anybody else considered a wild choice), some etudes (Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Debussy, MAYBE Scriabin), oh, and something Prokofiev for the modern work, or Schoenberg if you’re feeling daring,” and it seems just fine to me.

Another change in administrative policy that would make finding and/or creating opportunities easier for students is if the administrative staff (as well as the faculty) were actively supportive of independent work and helped students turn their ideas into workable projects. In my case, several individual faculty members proved to be of great help to me in realizing some of my plans. Unfortunately, this was the exception rather than the rule. My faculty advisor stepped in to coach me when my piano teacher refused to come to school outside the hours I was in class to hear my trio play a modern work. Knowing which faculty members to enlist when you needed help petitioning some committee or other for permission to do a project proved of vital importance. A teacher from an entirely different department signed off on projects and then backed off to give those of us working on them enough breathing room to make our mistakes and learn from them. I think more faculty support for student projects like those that I learned most from would be possible if a certain number of independent work credits were required for graduation. By putting these projects officially on the class list, it creates the idea that they are not only legitimate but also deserve the same attention and work that a regular class would. It also creates a push for the administrative staff to leave off their worries about quality control and such and let the students to their thing (within reason). With the right kind of institutional support and acknowledgment, many more students could create the kind of events that will help them prepare for their individual path in the field of music instead of turning out another hundred or so highly skilled musicians who don’t know what to do with themselves each year.