Passport Approved: My Summer Travel and Music Plans

Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.
Kurt Vonnegut

I am currently listening to the latest from Passport Approved, which credits itself as “an internationally syndicated tastemaker import radio show.”  That can only mean one thing: there is travel on my horizon.

I have noticed particular peculiar propensities that power up inside me when the travel bug bites.  The first is, as you might expect, an adjustment in the music that I listen to.  Normally, I sail down the street each day listening to my local Minneapolis radio station The Current (which I highly recommend), but there are some international feels that it does not satisfy.

My plan is to go to Austria in July and participate in Mid-Europe, an international wind band festival in Schladming, Austria.  After reading about this small town, I learned that it has hosted the World Championship for the International Ski Federation twice, which means pretty mountains live there.

I am going to teach my saxophone how to yodel.

I am going to teach my saxophone how to yodel.

Mid-Europe has an honor band call the World Youth Wind Orchestra Project that I have submitted an audition recording for, and now I simply lay in wait for the result.  I am not getting my hopes up; in fact, I am quite prepared for a rejection.

I wanted the most well-qualified recording that I could come up with, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a piano accompaniment.  Unfortunately, the microphone was a bit too close to the piano, and our recording process was very rushed so I did not have the wherewithal to do a sound check. (We were pressed in between the end of the school day when I finished teaching and when the pianist had to go pick up her daughter from school.  Safety Warning: No tempos were injured in the recording of our music.) Additionally, I have learned that because I play the saxophone, I must always be prepared for rejection.

Accepting that rejection is all right was actually an easy conversation to have with myself.  If I do not pass the audition, I will simply attend the conducting masterclasses as a passive participant and bask in the beautiful light of wind band knowledge.  Then again, nothing is stopping me from at least applying as an active participant and actually conducting (SCARY).

I will come clean, though.  This week-long conference is going to be couched in about a month or more of personal travel that, for all intents and purposes, will be #@$%ing amazing.  So whether or not I perform at Mid-Europe, I will still learn a great deal about wind bands, meet important figures in our shared field, and take time to explore new parts of the world.  Now would be a good time for you to set up a date for coffee with me in Prague.

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A brief journey with the classical saxophone

My name is Linus. I am a saxophone player, and I do not play jazz.

Gasp.

I have spent many, many hours in agony.  I take my saxophone out of its case, put on the mouthpiece and reed, and just before I play my first note, I weep.  The saxophone in my lap lays in silent sadness, unable to make a sound since there is no music besides jazz.

Well, no.  Not really.

I am certainly disappointed in myself for not tackling jazz while I grew up, but I had a different set of experiences instead that I need to justify to myself as good.  If I get around to studying jazz more seriously, I will be a late bloomer.  Or, I could learn how to rock climb.

“What else do saxophone players do?” you ask. The answer:

Marijuana.  Salsa music.  Rock music.  Funk.  Ska.  Fusion.  Punk.  Rap.  R&B.  Mostly, I myself have trained to play classical saxophone.

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Linus, you’re confusing the babies.

The saxophone was invented in France by Adolphe Sax 173 years ago.  One of the primary reasons for its invention was to invent an instrument that could sound like both a brass instrument and a woodwind instrument.  Mr. Sax actually invented a lot of bizarre instruments, like something called the “saxotromba” — which has gone extinct — and the expanded the clarinet family with the bass and contrabass clarinet.

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From left: Phillis, Billy, Susan, Bass, and Contrabass.

One of the most recognizable pieces of classical (orchestral) music that includes saxophones is Bolero by French composer Maurice Ravel.  Last night, I attended a performance of the Minnesota Orchestra, which included this piece on the program.  The sound of the saxophones playing was so liquid, so sultry, that it was difficult to discern whether it was really a saxophone or another reed instrument like the oboe or English horn.  Even though I have performed this piece and heard it many times, I was still fooled and found myself looking through the wrong section of the orchestra when I heard the saxophone.  D’oh!

My future family, from left: Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass. (Not pictured: John and Susan)

The recording below is the second movement of a sonata for alto saxophone and piano by American composer William Albright.  If you are interested in a bit of explanation about this piece, read below the video.  Otherwise, enjoy a performance of classical saxophone.

Sonata, Mvt. II: “La Follia Nuova”
William Albright

William Alright wrote in his program notes:

Of all of the movements, the second perhaps most deserves comment. This
movement is dedicated to the memory of the composer George Cacioppo who
died unexpectedly on April 8, 1984. Co-founder of the ONCE group and mentor
to two generations of composers, Cacioppo and his music and personality rest at
the foundation of my thinking. He would have very much appreciated the use of
the traditional title “La follia” (the madness) in my reincarnation as “La follia
nuova.” Like its Baroque antecedents, the movement is in a chaconne-variation
form, although at one point the sections jumble together, or intersect. The fact that
the key is F-sharp minor may be important, or it may not be.

Throughout the piece, there is a consistent descent.  The piano line is always going downwards, as a symbol for the descent of life into death, and the descent of a body into a grave.  Optimistically, Albright gives ascending lines to the saxophone to highlight the hope for an ascent into heaven.  Despite these efforts, I find this piece is horribly tragic, and it seems as though it ends without completing the mourning process.  The saxophone player is asked to step away from the piano and play distantly; usually, the performer turns their back to the audience and walks toward the rear wall, playing the final hymn melody by memory.  They remain facing away from you while the piano painfully performs the sounds of agonizing funeral bells.  The pianist is told to play as many repetitions of the bell chords as they wish, which can create a very elongated, sad, and uncomfortable moment. (source)

Steve Reich: “the restless search of exploring new ground”

See this article in Deceptive Cadence via NPR.

There is no reason to think that creativity and musicianship is dying. Composers still composes, perform, premier, and scandalize. Enjoy.

Steve Reich At (Nearly) 75

by ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS

Steve Reich takes a bow at his 75th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall alongside members of the Kronos Quartet and So Percussion.

Steve Reich takes a bow at his 75th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall alongside members of the Kronos Quartet and So Percussion.

This October, composer Steve Reich is turning 75 — an age that for many other artists, especially ones as widely adored as Reich, wouldn’t be marked by much more than a few valedictory laps. Instead, he continues to make innovative music and is still one of the most important and influential voices of our era.

That fact became vivid reality this past Saturday evening at Carnegie Hall, when Reich was feted with a concert that was not at all a retrospective. Instead, it was comprised entirely of works Reich has written only within the last four years, performed by artists who have become Reich colleagues as well as fans: the Kronos Quartet, longstanding partners of Reich, all the way back to 1988’s Different Trains; the downtown denizens of Bang on a Can; So Percussion; and the sextet eighth blackbird.

As much as any other contemporary composer, Reich has become an icon to mainstream music fans and musicians like Thurston Moore or Sufjan Stevens. At the same time, though, a number of audience members stalked out of Carnegie angrily mid-concert. Here’s a composer who still wields the power to infuriate some, just as he did when his Four Organs was booed at Boston’s Symphony Hall 40 years ago.

Idol though Reich is, however, his music of the past few years has posed more questions than answers — and maybe that’s exactly what makes his voice so relevant in our own age of anxiety.

The early birthday celebration began with Reich’s Mallet Quartet, a piece for two vibraphones and two marimbas. As with Reich’s previous music for percussion, I’ve been drawn to the nearly pointillistic quality of the rhythmic play, as you can hear in this performance by So Percussion:

So Percussion plays Reich’s Mallet Quartet.
Source: YouTube

But the acoustics of Carnegie Hall revealed other qualities in this piece entirely. The slow middle section — a meditation on space and stillness — offers a real contrast to the kineticism of so much else of Reich’s work. The warm, low woods of the marimbas played in canon against the ringing of the vibes, which in the resonance of Carnegie’s Isaac Stern Auditorium pealed as brightly as church bells.

WTC 9/11: A piece that Reich calls addressing “unfinished business” — the business, perhaps, of being human, of struggling mightily through personal and communal loss. Unlike, say, John Adams‘ On the Transmigration of Souls — a piece written in the year following 9/11, and which movingly memorializes the astonishing toll of lives lost and lives shattered — Reich’s WTC 9/11 distills the existential issues of the past decade: What is to come now?

The Kronos Quartet plays Steve Reich's 'WTC 9/11.'l

The Kronos Quartet plays Steve Reich’s ‘WTC 9/11.’

Reich’s piece crystallizes some of the anxiety and searching that characterized not just the chaos and pain of the attack and its immediate aftermath, but the great unknowns that have characterized the last decade for all of us, last night’s Osama bin Laden news notwithstanding.

WTC 9/11 weaves in the voices of NORAD workers and NYFD firefighters as well as interviews with some of those who, like Reich himself and his family, lived and worked in the shadows of the Twin Towers. (Reich and his wife, video artist, Beryl Korot, were in Vermont on September 11th, but their son, granddaughter, and daughter-in-law were at Reich and Korot’s apartment four blocks away from the WTC on that dazzlingly bright September morning.)

In WTC 9/11, Reich returns to a form that he has long used so effectively in such pieces as It’s Gonna Rain and Different Train,blending recorded and manipulated speech with music. One of the most effective instants of Reich’s textual interlaying of spoken word and music comes in the moment we hear a man, recorded eight years after 9/11, recounting the day. His voice strained and tight with emotion, he says, “It was chaos,” against frantic, harrowing close intervals played by the strings rubbing up against each other. We can hear the anxiety in the man’s voice as he relives that terrible day; the experience is still so close and real — both to him, and to us.

Reich opens up a second meaning of the initials “WTC,” as the World to Come. He draws in the voices of some of those who attended to the Jewish obligation of shmira in the days after 9/11: sitting near the bodies of victims before their burial, reciting and singing Psalms and other Biblical passages ceaselessly. In Reich’s treatment, shmira is almost is an act of willing a new reality into being, though none of us is sure what actually is to be: “The world to come,” as one of Reich’s interviewees muses, “I don’t really know what that means.”

The second half of the concert opened up another channel of Reich’s output, one that again belies any hoary Grand Elder Statesman aura. The piece 2X5 places two quintets of electric bass, piano, drums, and two electric guitars against each other; its world premiere in 2008 fixed Kraftwerk up with some of the Bang on a Can musicians.

There’s often a lot of talk about how Reich marries classical paradigms to pop and rock aesthetics. Some of that crossover is quite real — one of the musicians playing in this performance of 2X5 was Bryce Dressner from The National, and another was Mark Stewart, who on other nights directs Paul Simon‘s band; a third was Glenn Kotche of Wilco.

In pieces like 2X5, however, you hear Reich using the musculature of the electric guitar in a very different context than most rock or pop artists. It’s in the service of techniques like hocketing, the “hiccuping” effect of instruments trading playing and silence to create one bigger musical line. The result is ten musicians bobbing up and down and swaying together that might, in high-handed terms, be called a joyous communion; in simpler terms, it’s ten artists just totally rocking out.

The Carnegie Hall concert ended with Reich’s Double Sextet, which earned the composer a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Written in 2007 for eighth blackbird (who originally played against a recordings of themselves, but here faced Bang on a Can musicians), Double Sextet is a tightly coiled thing that positively vibrates with an inner energy, yet has lyricism at its core, and a sense of space and line thanks to harmonies that constantly shift and are reshuffled within a larger form. Such lacunae and harmonic movements are rather new in Reich’s music, but that’s such a large part of the pleasure of his recent work, the restless search of exploring new ground.

Classical Music with Shining Eyes

There’s nothing I can say to prelude this, so just watch it. This will pair itself nicely with my previous post on Bobby McFerrin. I got this from Miss Music Nerd dot com.

Benjamin Zander is the conductor of Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, giving you 20 minutes of your life you won’t regret.

Say Hi to Alkan

I have been listening to Charles-Valentin Alkan for about a year now, and I’ve blogged once about him already, but I thought another introduction (or re-introduction) ought to be necessary. Why we aren’t hearing the music of Alkan in our mainstream classical repertoire is a mystery to me. He was a contemporary of Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt (though to say he rivaled the latter is more to the point), the two powerhouses of Romantic music of the 19th century. Wikipedia can tell you more.

Everyone digs finding their own Alkan; something a little bit spectacular that has been neglected the light of day. It might be a movie, a song, a photograph, a person, a civilization. Is it safe to say that to dust off this stuff is enough to call you a revivalist? Although dusting is fun (my roommates will remember how I accidentally admitted I enjoy vacuuming), so is building. When you listen to these marvels—remember they were written about 150 years ago—don’t forget the other side of neglect: the present.

I have picked two pieces for you. The first, Le Festin D’Esope, is a very precise, magical performance by the 20-something Edward Cohen. His YouTube channel is small (like my blog), but what he has is great stuff, and I encourage you to check it out.

The next piece is Alkan’s Grand Etude, “Hands Reunited.” It’s the third in a series of etudes, and can you guess what the first two are? Right hand and left hand. Genius. This is another 20-something Isaac Holbrook. As for what he’s all about, I have no clue. But as far as super-awesome performances goes, this one couldn’t be more human, is what I’ll say. Out-of-tune piano, a room of bros… There’s another performance where he plays this as a duet intoxicated.

Speaking of intoxication, I now know how I will celebrate my 21st birthday: Go to the Harry Potter themepark, buy drinks at Hogsmeade (they have alcoholic beverages at the Hog’s Head), and then ride the rides. I think the Dragon Challenge will probably have the most dizzying results. I will let you know if this ever actually happens.

A Taste of the Contemporary

After World War II, classical music audiences stopped showing great interest in music being newly composed. They instead sought comfort in what was familiar to them. Sibelius, Paganini, Handel. Professional orchestras caught on to this, and instead of loosing money by playing new music too much, simply dug backwards (or stayed put). Telemann, Monteverdi, Tchaikovsky. A few composers have made it past WWII and are cycled in concert seasons regularly: Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Copland, Shostakovich, and more. Props to them. Though what we hear is not always what is daring. The people who want daring go out and find it (damned kids!), but the commercial playlist would not even touch works by Lourié, Reich, or Creston. Heck, they barely graze the surface of Samuel Barber (his Adagio for Strings undoubtedly makes my mother weep, but some other pieces might make her cringe).

You’ve probably figured out that I’m going to show you something on YouTube by now. Electronics have been being used in classical music for at least forty years. In this video, DJ Mason Bates has composed a piece being performed by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall last summer. You’ll like it.

I’m glad that I’m a saxophone player: we have no choice but to play contemporary classical music. “Early music” for the saxophone might be 1910’s, whereas “early music” for the oboe might be 1610’s. So, I’ll continue to be a thrill seeker finding new music to listen to, while others can sit back and enjoy the concert program.