Sunday, April 30, 2006

"holding up all this falling"

While coaching a clarinetist's Mozart Concerto in a master class the other evening, Michael Tilson Thomas brought up a Rilke poem, which I think was this one:


The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning "no."

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We're all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It's in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

Rainer Maria Rilke

He made the point that every leaf falls in its own individual way - even though they all might be saying "no", it is a slightly different no in each case. And so he challenged the clarinetist to explore different ways of executing the graceful falling gesture of the first phrase, and to find one suited to his own personality and his conception of the piece. He quickly came up with something that was very different than what MTT had sung - but delightful nonetheless.

It was an interesting exchange, and a reminder of how idiosyncratic the performing arts can be. I often find myself trying to make things "right", meaning in tune and in time, among other things. I think much less often about how to make things "right" in mood, in gesture, or in psychological terms - even though all these are aspects we respond to immediately. It's why that poem speaks to us in such a beautiful way.

This also reminded me of a passage from Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, in an essay called "Nothing Special":

Of course, whatever we do is the expression of our true nature, but without this [Zen] practice it is difficult to realize. It is our human nature to be active and the nature of every existence. As long as we are alive, we are always doing something. But as long as you think, "I am doing this," or "I have to do this," or "I must attain something special," you are actually not doing anything. When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something. In zazen what you are doing is not for the sake of anything. You may feel as if you are doing something special, but actually it is only the expression of your true nature; it is the activity which appeases your inmost desire. But as long as you think you are practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.
I think it's wonderful to think that just by acting in a mindful, unaffected way, one can manifest one's true nature - something entirely unique to oneself. And of course it is true that just as no two voices sound alike, no two hands fall quite the same way, and no two musicians sound the same. This is the magic of musical performance - while we may have our standards, and follow standard practices and forms, no live performance needs to sound standard.

It's worth reminding ourselves of this, I think, in a world where too many things have lost any taste of individuality. Just yesterday I was reading Eric Schlosser's essay "Why McDonald's Fries Taste So Good", which appeared originally in the Atlantic Monthly. In answering his title's question, Schlosser penetrates the secrets of the "flavor industry" and reveals that a great deal of the flavors we crave and consume daily are synthesized by a few little-known chemical companies; not only that, but these companies all seem to be located along one stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike. They work to insure that every french fry tastes pretty much the same as any other - as does every box of cereal, cup of yogurt, or can of soda. Lest you think I've strayed too far from the subject, here's a bit from the article:
One flavorist compared his work to composing music. A well-made flavor compound will have a "top note" that is often followed by a "dry-down" and a "leveling-off," with different chemicals responsible for each stage. The taste of a food can be radically altered by minute changes in the flavoring combination. "A little odor goes a long way," one flavorist told me.
They may be sophisticated artists in flavor manipulation, but reading this article was a bit like finding I had been living (or at least eating) in the Matrix, a world entirely manufactured and designed to deceive my sensory perceptions. It's a bit disconcerting but well worth reading - an excerpt is available online, and Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation may cover some of the same ground.

Many might argue that we live in a musical matrix as well - and one of the prime culprits they would point to is Muzak. I have a slightly more positive view of the company though, after reading another recent article, "The Soundtrack of Your Life" by David Owen. This appeared in the April 10th New Yorker, and it explains the company's development from a producer of aural narcotics to a much more sophisticated use of music in "audio branding." They're still piping in music that might not even catch your attention - but it's being used to communicate a definite mood, concept, or even physical activity.

I suppose all this audio branding seems a bit nefarious and evil, at least until you are aware of what's being done. Once I realized how they do it, I was almost grateful to these clever people who design these ingenious sound messages. I guess the differences between the chemical companies' "flavorists" and Muzak's "creative managers" may not be all that great; but I would much rather unknowingly consume a Beatle's song than a ground-up insect. Given the choice, of course.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Goodbyes to Pat and Admiral

Please pardon my recent negligence - I seem to have caught some sort of spring fever, a week of shiftless, flustered, overwhelmed franticness, without really getting anything done. What with the always increasing volume of online reading material, I'm very flattered that anyone still takes the time to stop and check here, and I'll do my best to honor that attention soon!

In the meantime I want to offer my farewells and congratulations to Pat Nott and Admiral Ferguson, two members of the New World Symphony "family" who are leaving as of this week. Both Pat and Admiral contribute so much to the organization, both in terms of personality and productivity, that it's difficult to imagine things without them. Pat Nott is our Dean of Musicians, which means that she serves as supervisor, advisor, cheerleader, and occasionally substitute mother to everyone in the orchestra. Admiral worked on the stage crew as lighting engineer, and was a constant, helpful, and uplifting presence at rehearsals and concerts. So even though Pat and Admiral may receive few standing ovations or ecstatic reviews, they are both fabulous performers, and they will be quickly and intensely missed.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Earth Day reading

With apologies to Mother's Day, possibly no other holiday has an object so taken for granted, or so worth celebrating, as Earth Day. For all that, it's a difficult holiday to celebrate, since so many of our everyday tasks tend to damage the Earth. I recently finished Elizabeth Kolbert's illuminating book Field Notes from a Catastrophe, an impassioned plea for rational conservation of the world's atmospheric balance. As Kolbert writes:
Here in the United States, most of us begin generating CO2 as soon as we get out of bed. Seventy percent of our electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels - a little more than 50 percent from burning coal and another 17 percent from natural gas - so that to turn on the lights is, indirectly at least, to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Making a pot of coffee, either on an electric or a gas range, adds more emissions, as does taking a hot shower, watching the morning news on TV, and driving to work.

- page 132-133
It goes on this way, describing how the average American manages to generate an unprecedented 12,000 pounds of carbon each year. Faced with such facts, you might be tempted just to stay in bed - I tried this though, and at some point you need to turn on a fan or the a/c, at least here in Florida, and so the carbon dumping goes on.

No one is going to stop their carbon-generating ways overnight, or even for one day; but we can become more aware of our impact, and reduce our energy uses in any number of ways. A good first step might be to read a book like Kolbert's or Tim Flannery's The Weathermakers, both well worth their weight in carbon. Both books present sober assessments of the present crisis, stories from a world in the midst of fearsome changes, as well as plenty of hopeful options. Both reveal global warming as not a distant threat or theory but a very real problem already affecting the habitats and the lives of many people.

People I've talked with about this have commented that it sounds like depressing reading, and it is to a certain extent. These books could not have been written though without a great deal of optimism, and that hope infuses even the most dismal reports about climate projections and government inaction. Most of us take on seemingly unsolvable problems every day, as any bass player attempting to play in tune knows - surely we have the energy and dynamism to adapt and preserve the balance of the world as we know it. It might seem a lot to ask, when we can get away with just a card and a hug on Mother's Day. The Earth deserves it though, and our species' continued existence depends on it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

more media exposure for bassist Ben Allison

One of my favorite radio programs is WNYC's On The Media - check out their website for lots of nifty archived stories, or to find out where you can listen or subscribe to the free podcast. Each week OTM takes an hour-long look at the stories making news, and the newspeople making those stories. Hosts Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone set a smart, sardonic yet thoughtful tone, and they do some great reporting and interviews themselves.

Equally important to the show's tone and feel is the music which stitches together the segments, by bassist/composer Ben Allison. OTM uses excerpts from Allison's albums Riding the Nuclear Tiger and Buzz, but this past week a new Ben Allison album was released: Cowboy Justice. Allison keeps his ear to the ground as well as the groove, and the album's title is intended as a political statement. Glowing reviews have already appeared in the NY Times and on; the latter quotes Allison saying, “It is American music. It is world music ... It's a reminder of why America is a great idea. It's a reflection of this country the way I see it and of its place in the world, not of how it's been recast.”

I've only heard short samples, but I hope to hear the album in its entirety soon; maybe it will also give OTM some new material to use. Thanks to bassist blogger Dale Cruse for the link - and for a fantastic website covering all sorts of bassists.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Brahms' 2nd: "in this vast, open-hearted silence"

We've been playing Brahms' 2nd Symphony this week, and a radio interview I heard today seemed relevant to this music, with its poetic silences:
Krista Tippett: You have worked so intensively with words, but I sense that your real passion is for experience, and the traditions that you are most drawn to personally have more to do with silence. Is that fair?

Stephen Mitchell: Well, from the beginning I think that's where you end up in the book of Job, in this vast, open-hearted silence. And I think that's where all of the most profound and beautiful words lead, Rilke's included. He would sometimes talk about what lies on the edge of words, and I think you're right - any words that penetrate deep enough know that there's something much more important than words. And the most that they can do is speak with a kind of beauty and depth that will point beyond themselves.

Mitchell is a writer and translator of sacred texts, and this interview was on the subject of prayer. I'm not sure what Brahms' attitudes about prayer might have been, but he does seem to have written music which points beyond itself. Many of my favorite moments of the Second Symphony are in its resonant silences. I wish I could analyze that special quality of contemplation which suffuses these pauses; I only know it as an experience of great beauty.

Brahms was not the only master of the unspoken - another of my favorite composers, Bruckner, made almost a signature of the profound silence. It seems to me that these composers are particularly vulnerable to clumsy performances. Only a hair's breadth of time can make the difference between a full blossoming of sonority and a rote reading, or an overexaggeration. Further, this music with all its spacious chords demands so much sensitivity to the performance space itself. What sounds natural in one hall can sound lethargic in another.

I think Marin Alsop has a great deal of sensitivity in this respect, and is able to tailor her interpretation to the character and resonance of the orchestra and its hall. She placed a great deal of emphasis on upbeats, the quality of leading naturally into a phrase which is so essential to this music. The Adagio 2nd movement makes a great deal out of this quality, and often it is not clear just what is an upbeat and what a downbeat. It's a very special ambiguity, a sense of hesitant passion which can be quite moving (or cause all sorts of orchestral accidents!)

Like prayer, a Brahms symphony is more an experience aspired to than ever actually realized. I'm always astounded by how fully imagined these pieces are, how every color and resonance of the orchestral fabric seems fully accounted for - and how much more there is left to attain. I hope I'll be one of those people still fascinated by Brahms' symphonies after the hundredth time playing them, since certainly these pieces contain enough poetry and mystery to sustain a life-long fascination. If I ever grow bored, I think the fault is probably not in the Brahms but in myself.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

New World non sequiturs

Brahms' 2nd Symphony is one of those classical warhorses that almost everyone loves, and most orchestra musicians love to play it as well. Part of the New World Symphony's mission is to be fresh and innovative though - lately we've been advertising "Symphony with a Twist," concerts with a little something different - and so this weekend's concerts are packaged as "Brahms meets the moderns." The program combines Brahms' 2nd Symphony (and Academic Festival Overture) with a contemporary percussion concerto by Christopher Rouse, "Der Gerettete Alberich."

I usually like puzzles, and New World Symphony programs can be as tricky as any sudoku. I'm not quite sure what Brahms and Rouse have to do with eachother, but hopefully I'll figure something out. It's easy to say that an essential composer like Brahms influenced Rouse, along with every other contemporary composer - that's a bit of a cop-out, if you ask me. The Rouse piece is more directly linked to Wagner, who was a contemporary and rival to Brahms. Many people at the time thought of Brahms as a conservative and a throwback, sticking to the old rules and rehashing the old forms while Wagner, Strauss, and Lizst were pioneering new structures and sonorities. In retrospect, though, Brahms was perhaps a pioneer himself, a forerunner to Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and countless other composers who reinvented older music in a personal, modern idiom. His Symphony no. 2 is steeped in nostalgia, longing, and the joys of recreating the past.

No one will confuse Rouse with Brahms, but his piece does seem to have a similar fondness for the past. Guest conductor Marin Alsop introduced it to us by saying it's like a sequel to the Ring - as if it needed a sequel. Wagner pretty much killed off all his characters in Götterdämmerung, but he left the possibility that the dwarf Alberich may have survived. So Rouse revived Alberich and brought his leitmotifs together in a modern, percussion, genre-bending piece. Like the Brahms, a lot of this music will be familiar to almost any classical music listeners, even those normally intimidated by contemporary percussion concertos. Hopefully there will be some intriguing surprises as well, and programmatic non-sequiturs that make the familiar sound new.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


My apologies for being absent here for the past few days - I've been visiting my Mom and step-dad in Las Vegas. At some point I must have decided that I would take a break from the internet as well as the humidity. It was surprisingly easy to not blog, not check e-mail, and not read the NY Times online. I hope no one was too annoyed seeing Edgar Meyer's face unchanged here all week.

Of course, I didn't cease media consumption altogether, so I will probably have lots of things to talk and think about here in coming days. Here's something from a radio interview with poet Jorie Graham, on the subject of absence. It's sort of heady stuff - after a while all that talk of absence and presence can start to sound like New Age gobbledygook from "What the Bleep do We Know?!" But sometimes we do need to be reminded to inhabit our own flesh, with all the contradictory stuff we contain. And who wants to read a blog by an uninhabited person?

Michael Silverblatt: ...the poet has been absent from school for the first time in her life, and can hear in bed the moment of her name being called, not being there, and the teacher saying "absent," and she realizes that a human is perhaps the only thing that can be "absent".

Jorie Graham: Well, it's strangely self-evident when you think of it, but I remember as a child looking at a tree outside my window and realizing that the tree flowed to the outer limits of itself, and could not be absent or withdraw from its ultimate outward boundary at any moment. It was completely present. I felt that about everything else on the planet except for the humans. One can look in the face of a loved one, of their own mother, of a person who is caring for one, and one can see them thinking about something else, one can see them withdraw. One can feel oneself withdraw from the feelings that one is having and go into what we call an 'inwardness.' In that particular poem, the theological sensation of being completely present at the borders of one's being is what the child understands is a work, it's a practice. It's not something which is a given.

Just because one has a body doesn't mean that one is inhabiting it. Just because one is of the flesh doesn't mean one is incarnate. To be incarnate is to have - without, again, having any religious significance here, it's just a good metaphor - to be incarnate is to be inhabiting, via all of your emotions, the whole palette of emotions, your body at a given moment. So that above all else what full presence gives one is a capacity for not only complex feeling, but contradictory and paradoxical feeling. So that one of the things that it allows one is to feel glad and sad at the same time in an event. And realize that the body does not choose....

As Whitman says, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself - I contain multitudes." We contain paradoxical emotions and being present allows one to move to a place where one has opposing feelings about the same things and then one has to choose on an ethical basis which ones to prioritize. But not to feel that only one of them is the appropriate emotion and not to feel that only one of them is the one that should be the current through which one acts.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Edgar plays Performance Today

I noticed that Edgar Meyer made a live appearance on NPR's music program "Performance Today" yesterday - here's a link. The host Fred Child was maybe laying the compliments on a little thick; Edgar replied with his typical humility.

Fred Child: A solo for double bass called "Pickles"! Edgar Meyer wrote that and played it for us here in the NPR studios. Edgar, there's so much going on there, there are a lot of places where it would be hard to write down the music because your left hand is sliding up and down so fast - every note is either a slide up or a slide down in some places.

Edgar Meyer: I certainly would be one to say there's no point in notating it - that's part of the fun. Actually, like in improvising, sometimes you're sliding and you don't know where you're going... you don't even want to know. You hope you can get to a good one, and if you get to a bad one, you want to act like it was a good one and quickly move to another one.

FC: Just like life, you keep on going until you get where you need to be!