Yearly Archives: 2009

Polystylism and the State: A case study


Not that I’m trying to get all political in this space, but I want to single out certain people in positions of power around the world for their recent displays of musical acumen.  First is senior White House advisor David Axelrod (above), who took a “musical leave of absence” from his duties in Washington to hear the Chicago Symphony play Lennyz “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” simply because it is so rarely played.  Well done, Mr. Axelrod.


Next, even greater honors go to one Vladimir Putin, “Prime Minister” of Russia, who recently held a forum for Russia’s literary leaders, during which he said, and I am totally not making this up:

Humanity has entered a new development stage, and cannot turn back. It should be taken for granted. There is no way to reverse progress.

You know no worse than I do, and possibly better than I do that new means of expression appear every now and then in music and pictorial arts. Take our compatriot Alfred Schnittke. His music appeared sophisticated to the extreme. One did not think more complicated music could have been written-but contemporary composers write music of which experts say that no unprepared listener can hear out a piece from beginning to end. But some people enjoy such music and say that is the only way music should be today.

Say what??  Did the PM and general éminence grise of Russia seriously just name check Al Schnittke?  Damn straight.  But Putin has distinguished himself in matters musical before: in 2007, at the death of Mstislav Rostropovitch, the then premier issued a statement of public grief and attended the cellist’s funeral.  I remember that this seemed somehow natural to me at the time, but my good friend and insightful commentator El Bensón (who is apparently an opera blogger at this point) was duly startled, and contextualized the event with the following question: “Do you think George Bush would make a public announcement about the death of Yo Yo Ma?”


george-bush conducts

Unfortunately, just when things were looking up in the public sphere with regard to music, there’s This which basically cancels out everything that was ever good or right with humanity.  Pity.

On the flip side, if you want to read one of the finest pieces of writing about politics in music (not the other way around), I would direct you to our good friend Slavoj Žižek’s article “Shostakovitch in Casablanca“.

What a difference a year and a half made…

I had a really interesting and largely satisfying concert experience this weekend, so I’d like to pause for a short rumination on the life of a composer/conductor.

This weekend, for an Ad Hoc concert at Indiana U., I performed a piece of mine called “3 Waltz Scenes”. As the name “Ad Hoc” would suggest, this sort of concert is thrown together however possible — the conductor lures players to the few allotted rehearsals with junk food and hopes that the opportunity to play decent repertoire with friends will be enough to keep them there. These things are a grudging part of student life and somehow they usually come off decently.

I had been wanting to put some of my own music on an Ad Hoc for a while (this is my second year as a master’s student at IU) and had thought about writing something new for one of these concerts. That’s my usual M.O. — I’m very much an “occasional” composer, i.e. one who writes music for particular occasions (admittedly, I’m also one who only composes occasionally, these days).

I decided, however, to trot out an older piece of mine, which I composed in the spring of ’08, and which had only been played once. The second performance of a piece has so many advantages: the music is already written, the parts are already fixed, and it affords a chance to make any corrections or improvements to the original. It’s also a right of passage for the music itself — the piece has survived its infancy and is moving on to the next phase of its life (even if it’s me who has to drag it kicking and screaming to it’s birthday party).

The performance this weekend was a major improvement on the first one in many ways, partially because of the above reasons, partially because I was working with higher-level musicians, but also because of my own development as a performer and musician. Let’s take a brief glance into history, shall we? Here’s a clip from the première:

and here’s the same segment from the concert two days ago:

So, obviously, there are a lot of differences, the main one being Tempo.  Isn’t a composer supposed to know his own tempo?  In the earlier performance, the tempo is 100 to the dotted quarter.  A year and a half later, I conducted the same music at 116.  That’s four clicks of the metronome faster — not an inconsequential difference.  Interestingly, the tempo indication that I wrote in the score is dotted quarter = 100.  So, should I go back and change the score?  I’m not sure… because I frankly think my more recent tempo is about a click too fast.  So, it seems like I’ll need another shot at this piece to really get it right.

For me, this kind of point raises a lot of philosophical questions about notated music.  Do I have more authority as the composer of the piece when I’m conducting it than somebody else would?  Especially if my interpretative decisions are so erratic?  If I as a composer am subject to the same human foibles as any other musician, why should I deny other interpreters the leeway that I would grant myself?

I’m reminded of a particular paradox in the music of Bartòk, namely that he would often write timings in his scores, not just timings of the whole piece, but even of the individual sections and phrases.  The paradox is that, if you do the math yourself and multiply the tempo by the number of beats in one of his pieces, you get one timing, if you listen to his own recordings of his music, you get another timing, and 9 times out of 10, both of those will be different than what he’s written on the page!

So what’s a boy to do?  I don’t know.  And probably I can’t know until I’ve gone deeper into my life as an artist.  And who knows, maybe when I get there, I still won’t have any idea.

What I do know is that that gold necktie that I wore back on May 17, 2008 is so gorgeous, and I remember that I drove all the way out to Woodfield Mall to by it specially from Nordstrom’s, and that it cost about 1/4 of my monthly paycheck as a Youth Orchestra Director, and I still think it was totally worth it.  But for whatever reason, I didn’t even think about wearing it for this concert the other day, and can I just say, thank God I didn’t, because how embarrassing would it have been to be wearing the same tie in two videos of the same piece?  I mean, that’s just a little too cutesy, even for me.


DATE: Monday, September 28, 2009
FROM: William White
TO: Mrs. M. J. S– and Her Merrie Band of Bowers
RE: Sibelius Second Symphony: Notes on the Markings

Dear Mrs. S– and Assorted Toilers of the Performing Ensembles Division,

Thank you so much for marking the string parts for my recital.  You will find that I have used many of the bowings already in the parts, and I hope this makes your jobs all that much easier.

As far as I can tell, there will be more erasing for you to do than marking.  Generally, I would like for the parts to be as clean as possible, within the bounds of reason.

Here are a few guidelines and helpful suggestions:

  • Please observe the instances where I have marked a bracket to indicate a subito dynamic level.
  • Please do mark my beat patterns (such as “in 3” or “in 4”), also circling them.
  • In certain cases, you may notice that I have erased one of my own bowings and written in a new one.  This is because I have come up with a better idea.
  • At the end of the fourth movement, please be sure to erase any mention in the parts of tremolo.  If a player has marked the beginning of this passage “measured” or “misurato”, by all means keep it.
  • You may come across such “colorful” notations as “Cotton Candy” or “Killer Bees” in the already marked parts.  These and other such marginalia are patently the scribblings of a depraved imagination.  Erase them with haste! Such hogwash is the antithesis of music and needn’t sully the minds of our fine student musicians.
  • Please do not erase any markings such as “Watch”, “Count”, or artistic renderings of tiny spectacles.  These are miniature gems, pearls of wisdom handed down to us from the past.  In fact, if you are feeling frisky, I would encourage you to sprinkle such helpful annotations at random in the parts.
  • I notice that the master copies have numbered measures and the other parts do not, despite the fact that they are obviously printings of the same plates.  If the additional parts are not numbered, I would very much appreciate it if you could number them.  This shouldn’t be an untenably large task, since you can merely copy the numbers at the beginning of each line of music from the masters.  In the case of the ‘Cello master, I have numbered the part myself.
  • Finally, allow me a short rumination on the philosophy of marking parts: I feel that parts should be marked only to change, enhance, or render more specific what is already on the page; never merely to emphasize it.  As such, if you find a part that is overly laden with circlings of dynamics, I would bid you please tidy them up.  After all, what does a circled dynamic indicate?  That this particular dynamic should be followed while the rest are ignored?  Perish the thought.  We must encourage our players to follow the printed instructions on the page, interpreting them with taste and care for the musical context.  I myself have been known to passive-aggressively erase such markings by my stand partners, immediately after they finish writing them, much to their consternation and annoyance.  Let’s try to avoid such situations by presenting the parts free of useless clutter.  Once again, I thank you.


Well, the results of the highly acclaimed “Orchestra” poll are in, and here are the scores:

Lenny: 4 votes

Larry David: 2 votes

Charlie Rose: 2 votes

Nelson Riddle: 1 vote

Aaron Copland: 1 vote

Loren Maazel: 1 vote

These tallies are rather liberal, in that I assigned a vote to any mention of a participant”s name in a response.

So, kudos to Leonard Bernstein on this posthumous honor.  I must say I was a bit surprised… I thought Loren Maazel was a shoe-in.  But how can you go wrong with LB?  What”s my opinion, you ask?  Well, some of you thought that I had in fact cast the first vote, but the initial comment, authored by a putative “will” was not me, but my friend Benjamin “William” Slocòmbé.  I personally agree 100% with my other good friend Eric “El Bensòn” L. Benson, who prefers the particularly mellifluous yet syllablically daring rendering of Aaron Copland.  He also notes, quite correctly, that Larry David”s rendition bares a striking resemblance to the Copland.  So, I would say that Eric is also a winner in this contest.

Speaking of El Bensòn, you should totally check out his new blog: Inverted Garden.

In other news, Vincent Turner, aka. FrankMusik”s album “Complete Me” is now available this side of the pond.

Also, if you like FrankMusik, there is a slight chance you might like Tayisha Busay. (Although I”d recommend skipping the first track on their myspace player.)

As for me, I spent this past week hunkered down in a pit playing cembalo for IU”s production of “L”Italiana in Algeri”.  Playing cembalo so damn fun, every night offering new opportunities for improvised audacity.  This Sunday, I play my “3 Waltz Scenes” at a small student concert, a very thrown together affair.  We”ll see how it stands up…