Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the New York Philharmonic Think Outside the Box

It’s almost twenty years to the day that virtuoso Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. In another stroke of fate, he was playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, with a Scandinavian conductor on the podium, just as he will during his first stand as artist-in-residence with the orchestra, which starts tonight at 7:30 PM, featuring Rachmaninoff’s relatively rarely programmed Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.

In conversation with the Philharmonic’s Isaac Thompson at Lincoln Center last night, Andsnes revealed that he’s played New York more than any other city in the world – in that sense, he’s one of us, and he feels it. Yet another happy coincidence, Thompson revealed, was that this will be the first time in quite awhile where both the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence and composer-in-residence will be represented on the same bill, in this case by a New York premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Paavo Järvi conducts; Andsnes and the Philharmonic are back on Oct 13 at 11 AM, Oct 14 at 8 and on the 17th at 7:30. The most affordable tickets are in the thirty-dollar range and still available as of today

As a programmer, Andsnes isn’t satisfied with merely performing standard repertoire. He’s fresh off a world tour playing Beethoven concertos, but also served for seventeen years as artistic director of a Norwegian festival, a role that greatly influenced him, not only through the expected exposure to all sorts of different music, but also the need to think outside the box and celebrate lesser-known works from across the centuries. In some lively banter with the audience, Andsnes spoke of his fondness for the seldom-performed solo piano works of Dvorak as well as Shostakovich’s haunting, World War II-era Piano Sonata No. 2, a recent discovery for him. His latest album celebrates the solo piano music of Sibelius.

Andsnes animatedly reaffimirmed his advocacy for the Rach 4, a vastly different beast by comparison to the composer’s previous concertos. Famously, Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist was the only guy in the world at the time who could play faster: Art Tatum. “Rhythmically, it’s very jazzy sometimes,” Andsnes explained, “The second movement begins like an improvisation by Bill Evans,” a confluence of jazz-informed harmonies and nostalgia.

“The harmonies are so juicy in late Rachmaninoff, with the Third Symphony, with the Symphonic Dance – truly heartbreaking. Rachmaninoff would always dismiss composers like Prokofiev, but in the final movement there’s a lot of Prokofiev along with the long, sweeping melodies Rachmaninoff was so famous for” 

The Rach 4 is also very hard to play from memory, Andsnes admitted. “Maybe this is the jazz influence: very few downbeats, very few obvious rhythms between the orchestra and the pianist. It’s very easy to get lost and for them to understand what I’m playing. I have a few scary memories with this piece,” he grinned, referring to his first live performances of it.

With his new album, Andsnes leaps to the front of an admittedly small circle of advocates for Sibelius’ solo piano music, which he admits is “much more uneven” than the composer’s orchestral output but is still full of rare gems. His wishlist for future recording includes Chopin preludes as well as Mozart and Debussy: he likes to focus on one particular composer at a time, to get a full sense of the diversity of their work.

As the interview went on, Andsnes offered plenty of insight into his own development as a performer, not to mention a sharp sense of humor. Which composer does Andsne find the most challenging? Bach. Surprisingly, Andsnes didn’t get much exposure to Bach as a young piano student: to Andsnes, Bach is like a language, best learned sooner than later in life. Does Andsnes ever get the urge to compose? No. “Not even once,” he smiled, “There’s already so much bad music out there, and there’s so much exciting music waiting for me to discover.”

What were his most dramatic moments at the keyboard? As a sixteen-year-old, headlining with the Grieg Piano Concerto on the final night of the annual festival in his native Bergen = he’d never heard the piece before, beyond its first few famous bars. He also mentioned a colorful, satirical Britten concerto whose big keyboard-length glissandos left the pianist bleeding all over the ivories.

And the night’s funniest moment was when Thompson asked Andsnes to talk about his frequent side gigs as a chamber musician. Andsnes got a kick out of that one. “Friends get together. We play music,” he laughed. “What’s so exotic about that?”

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October 12, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Corrosively Hilarious New Spoken-Word Album from Anthony Haden-Guest

Back in the early 80s, legendary journalist and gadfly Anthony Haden-Guest ran into Island Records honcho Chris Blackwell at a party in Cannes. Haden-Guest asserted that the hip-hop fad, as he called it, had run its course. That opinion might have been colored by having missed the opportunity to run up to the South Bronx with his buddy Malcolm McLaren to witness the birth of what McLaren called “scratch.”

Whatever the case, Blackwell’s response was, “Anthony, you are absolutely mad.” Thirty-five years later, Haden-Guest has released his debut hip-hop song,.“I always assumed you had to be in a studio up to your neck in hi-tech to do this,” he explains, over a wry faux Wu-Tang synth backdrop assembled by film composer Keith Patchel. “If this won’t kill hip-hop, nothing will.”

That number appears on Haden-Guest’s hilarious new spoken-word album The Further Chronicles of Now, streaming at Bandcamp. When he’s at the top of his game, his relentless, spot-on skewering of the ruling classes ranks with Michael M. Thomas’ Midas Watch, in its glory days in the pre-Jared Kushner era New York Observer. With a total of 24 tracks, a handful of them set to spare, surreal, quietly carnivalesque 80s synthesized organ or piano, Haden-Guest’s commentary is as grim as it is funny.

The apocalypse is a recurrent theme, as is art-world skullduggery. Haden-Guest doesn’t suffer fools gladly and has a bullshit detector set to stun. “So I’m siting in a Starbucks, listening to the blues, sound peculiar enough for you?” he poses early on, in his proper blueblood London accent.

A handful of tracks here were released earlier on Rudely Interrupted, Haden-Guest’s 2012 collaboration with darkly eclectic songwriter Lorraine Leckie. The Everywhere Man revisits the “strangely nihilistic bunch” who made it their job to get past the “clipboard Nazis from outer space” to crash Manhattan parties in the 1970s. Happy City, as Haden-Guest puts it, is his requisite drug song, a step out of character for a guy who “got a bit tipsy at age seven as a kilted pageboy at a wedding, which…unfortunately prefigured much of what was to come.” And Bliss,. the most plainspoken but possibly most harrowing piece here, is as poignant as Leckie’s glimmering remake.

The art world is where Haden-Guest really gets on a roll. The Secret History of Modern Art begins with Gustave Courbet,  “A slap in the face with a fat girl’s bush.” Haden-Guest saves his most venomous critique for Picasso:

Pablo switched styles like a man possessed
As if in some eerie way he’d guessed
The needs and the greed
The hunger he’d feed
Of collectors to come, a predator breed
From Picasso we got the shopping cart
And create a supermarket of art

A Song for Andy, a Seven Days of Christmas rewrite, is just as funny. Even the critics get what’s coming to them here, although “Viveros-Faune cannot be counted on and Roberta Smith should not be tangled with.” The rest are available at the right price – and Haden-Guest names names. And The New Avant-Garde are “the shock troops for developers now.”

The best of the apocalypse scenarios, Yesterday’s Snow is an update on Francois Villon’s famous, elegiac poem:

This may take a little while!
J. Edgar Hoover’s curdled bile
Lee Harvey Oswald’s bulging file
Jayne Mansfield in a speeding motor
Vic Morrow underneath a rotor
Mark Chapman outside the Dakota
Robert Maxwell got a floater…
The way that Enron made that pile
Bernie Madoff’s tiny smile

Frenemies, ex-girlfriends and old colleagues each get what’s coming to them here as well. The Tame Frontier draws its inspiration from a drive back to Manhattan from “an extremely aggressive Hamptons weekend”  where “nobody walks, they cross the street by car, where the city’s a bridge too faraway.” There’s also An Ordinary Day, whose implication is how endless terrorism alerts cry wolf to the point where they’re useless, and A Hymn to Intellectual Property Rights, with its wry allusions to a jazz standard. Now eighty, Haden-Guest shows no sign of slowing down. If there’s anybody who deserves to stay in the game long enough to chronicle the end of the world as it happens, it’s this guy.

Haden-Guest and Leckie celebrate the release of the album tonight, June 8 at around 7 at Anderson Contemporary Art at 180 Maiden Lane in the financial district.

June 8, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, interview, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pioneering Pianist Nancy Garniez Explains Her Commonsensical, Paradigm-Shifting Discoveries in Tonal Refraction

Nancy Garniez’s latest achievement is a groundbreaking discovery in the field of sonics as they relate to memory and performance, which she calls Tonal Refraction. The iconoclastic, individualistic pianist has built an unselfconsciously brilliant career spanning both the worlds of classical and the avant garde. She’s commissioned new works from notable composers like Ursula Mamlok and several others. She continues to coach both professionals and casual players. Her blog is infused with a crushingly sardonic wit, and her commentary on the state of classical music is spot-on. She also happens to be mom to Rachelle Garniez, the multi-instrumentalist chanteuse and Jack White collaborator who might just be the most consistently brilliant songwriter working in any genre today. But ultimately, Tonal Refraction may be Nancy Garniez’s most lasting legacy. In anticipation of presenting her findings at the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Seoul, Korea this summer, she graciously took some time away from her teaching and research to answer a few questions.

Nancy Garniez: If I have learned anything from Tonal Refraction it is that the race to produce quantities of notes with minimal attentiveness, risks distancing players from any sense of real satisfaction in their music making, whether amateur or professional. I am now teaching players of all instruments, all levels, how to adjust their attention to include the elements that trigger the strongest, most reliable responses: I call it Music Inside and Out.

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: My rudimentary understanding of Tonal Refraction, as you describe it, is that in this new system pitches are associated with color rather than musical notation in order to better enable performers to hear what they’re playing or are about to play. What’s wrong with standard notation? Is color really more memorable than, say, that leger line above B that says “middle C?” Could it simply be that some people respond to color better than notation – or vice versa?

NG: It is perhaps better to think of Tonal Refraction as a process rather than as an alternative to standard notation. The process begins with the individual matching her feeling about a specific pitch to a color, tuning it, as it were, in this visual medium. Sometimes it is a favorite note, sometimes a problematic tone in a specific composition. Usually -but not always – the people involved have no previous association of color with sound. So it is important that the color is generated by the maker of the Refraction, not given as part of a method. In this sense it is a reverse notation since the color corresponds to a level of emotional response based entirely on experience of actual sound rather than being an equivalent to standard notation.

LCC: How about people like me who come from the world of improvised music where the cues are typically audio rather than visual?

NG: I have not worked with people like you, probably because the audio/visual coordination in your case – and Rachelle’s! – is so entirely different from that of a person who is reading music.

LCC: Throughout history, there have been umpteen methods for notating sound, although I’m not aware of color being one of them. One method that comes to mind is the shape-note system popular in the US in the late 1700s and early 1800s. What do you think of that?

NG: These are all evidence of the complexity of rendering the auditory in some other means to facilitate memory or execution…there will always be experimentation along these lines.

LCC: Why Tonal Refraction and not Tonal Reflection? Or is that just a matter of semantics?

NG: The word “refraction” is taken from Proust, who uses it to describe what happens to sensory memory when it is altered by layers of subconscious emotion, association, etcetera. I find it extraordinary that, upon Googling Tonal Refraction, I discovered “refraction” on page 38 of a theory treatise, Tonality and Transformation, by Steven Rings, University of Chicago. He uses the word in ways quite parallel to mine, though not with the literary association, rather with the prismatic image of the coloring of tone by experience. His work is based on the same thinker who inspired and informed my entire life as a teacher, Viktor Zuckerkandl, a psychologist, philologist, musician, who was at the Institute for Advanced Studies back in the 50’s, and whose book Sound and Symbol goes into these intricacies thoroughly, brilliantly, and hopefully, from the standpoint of how to make a meaningful life teaching music.

Incidentally, he met Robert Hutchins on a trans-Atlantic sailing and taught music at St. John’s College in Annapolis – thus he was passionate about music and the human race, not the conservatory subspecies. The second volume of his work is called Man, the Musician.

LCC: One thing that struck me immediately about Tonal Refraction is that it emphasizes the individual. After all, we all perceive sensory input differently, whether that’s audio or visual or tactile or any other kind of stimulus. How specifically is Tonal Refraction tailored to individuals?

NG: Here you are right on the money. The idea of my putting forth my own Tonal Refraction of a composition is not to stimulate your disinclination to go along with it, but rather to come up with your own images in both sound and sight.

LCC: What specifically does Tonal Refraction empower a musician to do that can’t be achieved through simple practice, or exercises, or ear training?

NG: I am amazed at the changes this technique has wrought in my listening, my playing, my teaching. The use of a code of related colors suggests interest in overtones as well as discrete pitches. And I haven’t even mentioned the grid: Tonal Refraction uses two potent elements: First, color for pitch relatedness: I can tell right away by the individual’s selection of colors whether or not she hears tones in relation one to another. Sometimes the power of color to show this is overwhelmingly clear in a way that has nothing to do with music theory or ear training. In one stunning instance, pointing out to a professional pianist how arbitrary his colors were for the C major scale began a conversation about how he hated overtones (they are, after all, inconsistent and therefore quite dangerous on the piano). Having never been taught to be aware of them he blanked them out with audible humming while playing. He no longer does so.

Second, the grid for tonal space decisions – that’s the vertical axis – plotted over a visualization of a time constant, which is the horizontal axis. As an example of tonal space, you might take the opening notes of Fur Elise: Beethoven alternates E and D# several times, starting with the E. These tones are so close together as almost to sound like a single tone with a wide pitch band. I would probably visualize that by changing color within one horizontal bar. But on page 2 the alternation begins with D# and the tones (D# / E) are clearly marked as separately articulated pairs, thus increasing the distance between them, as I understand that marking. I would indicate that by showing them adjacent horizontal bars. In other words, whereas they would be played on the same piano keys in both cases, the auditory distance would not be equivalent and I could emphasize that in my visualization.

;LCC: What is the physiological basis for Tonal Refraction?

NG: I am sure there is one and have perhaps found people to investigate this further. It is a matter of response in time. Musicians experience time in minuscule increments; during countless milliseconds we make more decisions than we can possibly track. Some of these decisions are based on emotional reactions to sounds themselves, as opposed to the composition as an entity. We know about this because of such responses as unbearable muscle tension, the humming I described above, focal dystonia — all of which I have “treated” using Tonal Refraction.

One of my former students, a neuroscientist, has connected me with a colleague, Daniella Schiller, who is working on the neuro-physiological fear response: animals, including humans, respond to fear physically before they are aware of the cause of their fear–it is so immediate a sensory event. Dr. Schiller, having tried Tonal Refraction, agrees that there are profound similarities between these types of event except that music unleashes a veritable torrent of response.

When I first began working with Tonal Refraction a student showed it to a colleague at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who referred me to the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Health Services in the Bronx, a facility for treatment of long-term neurologic disease. Dr. Concetta Tomaino, the Music Therapist with whom Oliver Sacks worked for decades, set me to work with several patients. I undertook this experiment as a volunteer and, after three sessions, achieved results “unlike anything we have seen in music therapy.” in Dr. Tomaino’s words.

Preferring the artistic life I did not continue in that setting.

LCC: Was there a particular problem or issue that sent you off on the road to Tonal Refraction? What initiated this journey of discovery and where did it lead you?

NG: I fell in love with the sound of the piano at age 3 or 4; it was a neighbor’s piano across the hall from our apartment. I had never seen a piano or heard anyone play one. It invaded my imagination; I loved the sound. We moved away, the choir director made my father buy a piano, and I began lessons at 7. It was a huge disappointment – no magic! So I played incessantly but never practiced. Until Mozart. That book of sonatas contained sounds that matched my feeling for the instrument — not all the sounds, just some, here and there. Of course, the discrepancy was baffling and I could not articulate it. For complicated reasons I was unable to pursue the standard training and career of a pianist, though it is the only thing I ever really wanted to master. Then, at age 57 a new invention of physical therapy gave me, for the first time in my adult life, unfettered use of my left arm, so I programmed a solo recital to include the Mozart that had so puzzled me at age 12. In the middle of the night I awoke sure that now I could SHOW people what it was about that music that had stayed with me so clearly. And thus it happened–out of the experience of childhood. It is one of the reasons I take teaching children so seriously.

LCC: Can I play devil’s advocate again and ask if Tonal Refraction has the potential to do much good, why hasn’t it already been adopted in the music education community? Or has it? Are there other people doing what you’re doing, or on the same track at least?

NG: Parental pressure for short-term achievement is calling the shots with increasing authority these days. Competition is all. The commitment to it is deeply entrenched.

LCC: Can I play devil’s advocate again and ask why, when we have Youtube and Soundcloud and a gazillion other places where we can learn stuff by ear, and if we get lost we can rewind, do we even need written notation? After all, an awful lot of people who play music, some of them very well, can’t read it…

NG: I refer back to my story of discovering those particular sounds in Mozart. I had no clue who he was or what it was but I knew I was not alone in the world. Had the music not been printed for me to stumble across all by myself on my piano none of the above could have happened, though I deplore the reliance of the classical music community on visual analysis rather than on auditory vitality – the recording industory has also been subservient to that order of priorities.

LCC: As you know, in Hindu mythology, certain pitches as well as certain colors are associated with the various chakras in the human body. I’m not aware of what if any mathematical correlation there might be between sonic and spectral frequencies in that system. Is there one in yours? In other words, does the correspondence between pitches have a mathematically corresponding color shift?

NG: These are issues that Zuckerkandl treats very beautifully. My work relies on the variability of acoustical events and the perception of them. In this respect it is not attractive to most theorists seeking mathematical formulas, though I feel the work is inherently mathematical. My brother, a mathematician, saw that right away, though he knows nothing about music.

LCC: I should say “congratulations” for being selected to present your findings at the upcoming International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Seoul this coming August. What specifics are you going to unveil there?

NG: Thanks!! No one is more surprised than I at the proposal having been selected. The proposal seems to address many of your questions quite directly: “The study aimed to determine whether individuals could be made aware of their involuntary experience of tone relatedness, demonstrated by Viktor Zuckerkandl (Sound and Symbol) to be integral to the musical life of persons with or without training; and, if so, whether it would make any difference.

Seventy-two individuals, including professional musicians, amateurs, listeners, and children, were seen for three weekly sessions of 1 ¼ hours. Session I: Each was asked to identify a tone that had particular meaning for them, then to choose out of hundreds of colored pencils a color to match that tone. Proceeding then to relate that tone/color either to a scale, or directly to the tones in a specific composition of their own choosing, the individual drew the tones on a grid, as if depicting vibrations. With the horizontal axis of the grid corresponding to time measured objectively, the vertical axis registered degrees of rise and fall as perceived by the inner ear, i.e., subjectively, often deviating significantly from standard notation. Continuing to depict the composition the individual worked in silence, relating to the score without relating physically to an instrument or actual sound. Session II: A continuation of the work. By Session III 67% of individuals already registered a clear response, generally manifested in improved reading; and better, more confident coordination in instrumental or compositional performance. Of this group 13% presented acute physical or psychiatric symptoms; with the exception of only one individual in this sub-group, the results were dramatically restorative.

For 30% of participants the process seemed to have no evident relevance while, for 3%, the first two sessions evoked such psychological pain as to preclude completing the study. Representative samples of work from all three groups will be shown. This research has direct implications about relating visual to auditory experience. Whereas failing to account for the difference between fully resonating sound and the discrete symbols of standard notation risks alienating the reader from innate musical sense, a system that translates auditory experience into visual terms may restore the connection.”

LCC: Being familiar with your blog, I’ve noticed that you have a prophetic streak. You’ve been a champion of live performance and live recording versus studio recordings, and you’ve also gone to bat for community-based performances and ensembles, both ideas which have validated themselves in recent years. To what degree, do you think, or would you venture to say, is Tonal Refraction an “I told you so” moment?

NG: It’s good of you to say that and thanks for reading the blog. After a while I got used to being a bit ahead of the pack, having noticed already in the 50’s that recordings and television were going to pose problems in terms of attentiveness and sound quality, which influenced my approach to programming. My teaching has always been experimental, including some far-out work in ensemble and in piano at Mannes Preparatory Division until the influx of Eastern Europeans in the 80’s wiped away all trace of what was creatively American in approaches to music education. I had to stop even pretending to accomplish anything against the Sovietization of classical music. Alas. But I still have acive contact with some extraordinary young musical minds. Most of my support has come from your generation and younger with the exception of a few highly perceptive artist teachers here and there.

LCC: Thanks for the enlightening chat! I’d like to remind those of you in New York that Nancy Garniez also puts on a very enlightening piano salon in a welcoming, intimate Upper West Side space: the current focus of these early evening house concerts is Beethoven sonatas and the fine points of the composer’s rhythms. Details may be found here.

March 31, 2014 Posted by | classical music, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leif Arntzen Explains His Brilliant New Album, with a Release Show at Nublu on May 25

You typically don’t expect someone who’s been been a presence in the New York jazz scene since 1985 to wait until now to make the best album of his career. But not only is Leif Arntzen’s new album Continuous Break a career high-water mark, it’s also one of this year’s best. The brilliantly individualistic trumpeter plays the album release show this Saturday, May 25 at Nublu at around 10 with the players on it: guitarist Ryan Blotnick, keyboardist Landon Knoblock, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeff Davis. It’s an intimate space and the band hasn’t played in awhile, so early arrival is advised. Arntzen graciously took some time away from rehearsals and pre-concert logistics to answer a few questions:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: In my opinion, the new album is your best ever. Do you agree? It’s definitely your most eclectic…

Leif Arntzen: This record was the hardest I’ve ever done, but at the same time I felt the most at home with the process. I didm’t feel any limitations to play anything in particular or stick to one sound or musical direction. Anything we played became fair game, and that created a lot of intensity from all of us, to make whatever we played count for something. It was our special moment in time, and we played that way. I think we got what we were looking for.

LCC: I understand all the tracks are live, continuous takes, oldschool style. Is that true?

LA: Yes, it was live off the floor crowded in a small studio playing next to each other. There was a lot of sonic bleed, so overdubs were not an option.

LCC:  I also understand that the tunes came together in an unusual way, in bits and pieces rather than either fully formed compositions or flat-out jams. Can you explain that?

LA: When everyone is so capable of so many things, of playing anything, for me it seemed more important to give the group simple ideas that made each of us have to dig…for something that brings us together, moves us forward. It was like we each showed up with our paintboxes, but only one big canvas to lay it down. I tried to simplify the starting point with simple melodies as much as possible…I think that gave us a wider horizon.

LCC: On the new album, it seems to me that you’ve thrashed a bunch of defiantly individualistic, outside-thinking guys into shape. Or is this them jumping at the opportunity to play lyrical, tuneful, memorable, composed or at least semi-composed music?

LA: As a horn player, I want to clear a way forward somehow through all the sound. I want to be playing outside too…but if there isn’t a melodic and rhythmic home, then being outside loses its meaning. I don’t have the luxury of playing more than one note at a time, so I have to imagine whatever I can to make my choices meaningful. I think everyone in the band is doing that in their own way, in their own voices. Maybe that’s why the music sounds more composed than it actually is.

LCC: Obviously there’s all kinds of improvisation on the album. I usually can pick up on where people are putting their own personalities, but this one is hard to figure out. For example, on your version of My Ideal, I love how Jeff adds an edgy contrast with his brushes against the lyrical gentleness of the melody line. His idea or yours?

LA: That’s Jeff. He has such a voice. He comes up with colors and shapes in the strangest ways…that made it easy for me to just play with the time and space…because I felt like that was all I needed to do to get something beautiful. It’s easy when all of us are after the same thing.

LCC: One of my favorite tracks is Tired, a laid-back funk groove that hits a big, explosive pastoral crescendo on the chorus. Are you into the Americana jazz thing that’s steamrolling these days, Bryan & the Aardvarks, Jeremy Udden, Bill Frisell?

LA: I really admire Bill’s version of Shenandoah on one of his recent albums. I love American classic melodies, folk and country music storytelling…I loved the Gil Evans Orchestra when they hit a big sonic full band stride. My son Miles [the brilliant drummer in Antibalas and leader of  Emefe] wrote a bass line and guitar riff inspired by his love of Nigerian Afrobeat and American funk…He called it Tired. When I heard the line, I heard so much of deep America in it, jazz rock pioneers, funk masters and delta blues, and came up with the melody….and so we just took it to our own place.

LCC: Another one I like a lot is The Call, where you take what could be a totally generic, lickety-split swing shuffle and introduce all those conversations, and good cop/bad cop dynamics, and rhythmic push-pull even though the bass is always holding the center Was that planned?

LA: The Call is not planned, and intended to allow us to go anywhere…it’s fast and we each just hitch aboard and see where we wind up, try to get there and back in one piece, together.

LCC: I hope you can forgive me for having discovered you not from your original music but from your Channeling Chet project. I never got to see Chet Baker in concert, so seeing you do his music – which seemed to me to be as close to channeling as anyone can get – brought me full circle with it in a sense. I think that speaks for a lot of other listeners. Looking back, how did that impact your career? By exposing you to a lot of people who might not have discovered you otherwise…or did it become a millstone, you being associated so closely with Baker’s work instead of your own compositions?

LA: I grew up listening to my dad’s Louis Armstrong recordings, and he was my favorite. After Louis it was Miles and Freddie and Coltrane. Chet came along much later in my own experience. It happened after singing a cameo in a New York show, where I sang and played Days Of Wine And Roses as a band feature while the name stars took a break. The New York writers wrote about it, with comparisons to Chet. When that happened I went back to better understand his music and playing. That’s when I became a diehard Chet fan. Eventually I paid homage to him in my own way on the Channeling Chet recording. His sound production adn technique were really something else, such a beautiful melodist. For awhile there it seemed like the Chet thing overshadowed a little, but mostly I didn’t worry about it.

LCC: You have a rep as a purist. What’s up with the Wurly? Did you write this stuff with electric rather than acoustic piano in mind? Or just the confidence that Landon Knobloch wouldn’t clutter the songs with it?

LA: I’ve been thinking more electric for some time. I grew up with rock, I like the Wurly, a Wurly was handy, and Landon just sounds great on it, gets a real swirly thing going on, and especially with Ryan too…Rock is a part of what this band is about, and I feel at home.

LCC: On the new album, as far as influences are concerned, I definitely hear Miles as far as space and pacing is concerned, and Freddie Hubbard  as far as perfect articulation and weightlessness of the notes. Am I on to something or not? What other trumpeters inspire you these days?

LA: Miles recordings have been a constant for me in my life. In terms of the horn, Miles and Freddie pioneered the sound of the horn, probably the biggest influence for me. But I can’t set aside Kenny Dorham, Chet, and of course Louis Armstrong perhaps most of all. Louis paved the way for all of us for just everything. I still listen to him all the time, hoping one day I could ever move an audience like that. There’s a recording of him touring in Europe in 1935, you’d think it was the Beatles, people are getting so crazy. Also his small group recordings with Duke Ellington are masterpieces.

LCC: Any plans to take this band on the road?

LA: Well, in the coming years I plan to work this band at every opportunity. I believe in this band, best one I ever had. We’ll do some touring around the east coast, maybe up to see my Canadian brothers and sisters…also working on a Spain tour for later this year.

May 21, 2013 Posted by | interview, jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bahar Movahed: Renaissance Woman

Bahar Movahed is one of this era’s most extraordinary voices. But she isn’t just a virtuoso singer of classic Persian and Kurdish songs. She can also operate on your teeth (she’s presently at the school of dental surgery at UCSF) and draw very funny pictures of you (her caricatures have been exhibited worldwide).  And she’s also a fashion model. She’s playing an intimate show at Symphony Space at 7:30 PM on April 17; tickets are still available as of today. If the poignant, emotionally rich music of Iran is your thing, this is a show not to miss. Movahed graciously took some time out of what must be a ridiculously hectic schedule to answer some questions:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You have a fascinating story. You are a dental
surgeon, an award- winning visual artist and a musician. Is there a common link
between these interests for you?

Bahar Movahed: Well, at first glance, they seem to be completely unrelated with no
common link, but the fascinating fact is that creativity is an essential and
inseparable link between all of them. Art is dead without new
works, and also without the creative soul of an artist. On one hand, if
you want to become a successful dentist, you should have the courage to
develop your own method of treating patients. In fact, in dentistry, you are
always creating a new tooth structure, and the more creative you are the
more successful you become. Sometimes I think it is contradictory that I
am shaping a tooth from a deformed structure into a beautiful new tooth that
looks normal, while in caricature art I deform a normal face and exaggerate
its form in a way that I end up with something funny and abnormal! But I love
what I do and enjoy every second. For years I have lived three different
lives trying hard and managing to be a professional in dentistry, music and
caricature art at the same time. It has never been easy, but it was my endless
love and passion for these interests that guided me and helped me get
through all the hardship.

LCC: Can I ask you how you got to the US, and to UCSF where you are
now pursuing medicine as a postdoctoral student? Why there and not
somewhere else?

BM: As I mentioned, my artistic work never lowered my enthusiasm for higher
education and success in my profession as a dentist. So, I always had
plans to pursue my studies at a world-class institute. When I was in Iran I
applied for an Advanced Implantology Preceptorship program at UCLA and
I was fortunate enough to get into the program, so I moved to the States.After
finishing the Implantology program I applied for an advanced standing dentistry
program which allows international dentists to work professionally in the US. I
was fortunate again to get accepted into some of the best dental schools in the US
and I chose to continue my education at UCSF School of Dentistry, which is truly
a dream come true for me. And I am hoping to pursue my postgraduate studies and
apply for a specialty program in the coming years.

LCC: You grew up in Iran after the fall of the Shah, and the Khomeini counter-
revolution. There was great repression there, and still is, especially for
women artists. What kind of music did you listen to as a young girl?

BM: The situation of those days may seem to be a bit strange for the people
that have not experienced such a social revolution or restrictions. I was
born a year after the revolution in Iran and my childhood was during the
Iran-Iraq war, a difficult time for my country with very limited time and
resources for anything beyond the absolute necessities of a household.
However, with my mother being a painter and my father an art enthusiast
I was very lucky to still be brought up in an art-loving environment. Even
growing up in post-revolution Iran, I was surrounded by cassette
tapes and LPs that my parents had treasured from earlier years. So, I
would mostly hear Iranian traditional music such as Banaan, Shajarian,
Parissa, etcetera as well as more pop-oriented Iranian songs by people such
as Googoosh, Farhad and Fereydoon Foroughi. Every now and then they
would also play western classical music such as Mozart or Bach and,
last but not least, the hit songs from bands like the Beatles! Another
unique and joyful experience from my childhood for me was the tapes
that my parents had recorded from a radio program from pre-revolution
years which played and talked about famous film scores of that time, from
movies such as Dr. Zhivago, West Side Story and Interlude. This all, I
believe, instilled the love of music in me from a young age despite the
difficult social conditions.

LCC: What came first for you, the tar or the voice? Have you always been a
singer?

BM: Actually, I began playing the  playing the piano when I was nine
years old. My father taught me basic notes and some popular songs.
Later, after the end of Iran-Iraq war, I had a piano teacher who
taught me the basics of music and some popular western classical
pieces. I started to learn to play Persian instruments like the
tanbur and tar in the years after and finally started my vocal training
when I was 18, initially only singing the lyrics for the pieces that had
words while I was playing the instruments. So I started with playing
instruments, and I became more seriously focused on singing later
on.

LCC: When did you realize that you had something special as a singer, that
you might be able to do this for a living?

BM: Whenever I was singing and playing, my family and
friends would usually encourage me and give me compliments. But
I decided to take professional vocal training when I listened to a
piece by Parissa accompanied by Hossein Alizadeh on tar. I’ll never
forget that piece, I got so intoxicated and mesmerized. And at that
moment, my soul was deeply touched by Parissa’s voice. It was at
that moment that I realized that I wanted to be a vocalist. I was not
too concerned with how good my voice was but I knew that I wanted
to create that feeling for an audience. I also want to add that I have not
chosen singing for a living because I wouldn’t be able to do so in
my country. It was not an option at all. I wanted to go for my passion
although I knew I wouldn’t be able to follow it as a career to make a
living from it..

LCC: What obstacles did you face as a young woman musician in Iran? Did
you experience opposition to what you were doing?

BM: There are no laws that prohibit women from studying music or
playing instruments in Iran as we have many prominent female
players on traditional instruments such as tar, khanun, santur, setar
as well as western instruments such as guitar and piano. There are,
however, specific regulations for female vocalists that make it quite a
difficult career for women to pursue music in Iran. For instance, as a female
vocalist you are completely prohibited from performing as a solo
singer. Technically, you can only perform alongside a male singer,
but your voice cannot be the main voice. That means that the man takes
the lead vocal, limiting women to backing vocals. The other option for women
is that they are allowed to perform in concert and sing as a solo
vocalist only for female audiences.  As you can imagine, this
greatly limits their audience and the extent of a woman artist’s work.
Either way, they still can’t produce solo CDs. I personally didn’t experience
opposition because I never went against the rules. I only played one concert, an
academic project by a university professor, Hossein Mehrani, and I
was singing alongside him. I have also done background vocals
on several albums as well.

LCC: What obstacles remain for women musicians there now? What would
have to happen there for you to go back?

BM: For female vocalists specifically, like I said, the most difficult obstacle
is being  unable to perform as a solo vocalist in public, and not being able
to produce meaningful and impactful works. Other than that, whenever a
female vocalist sings in a concert even as a harmony  or backing vocalist,
the media does not cover her because they don’t have the permission
to do so. For instance, I had sung in a piece and among the crew of 40 I
was the only classical female singer. Under those circumstances, one would
think that I would get more attention than the male singers. But what happened
was that music magazines that covered the piece wrote about everyone’s
voice except mine.. I felt like I was invisible! It’s a sad story, unfortunately.
For other musicians, instrumental players, I would say there is less
of a systemwide problem. As I said, there are a handful of remarkable
female musicians active even inside of Iran. But then again, the general
atmosphere is not exactly ideal for female musicians, mostly due to the
unfriendliness of the laws and the lack of proper exposure .About going back,
I think my case is a bit specific. As for my music, asI said, female vocal performance
is by governmental and Islamic lawprohibited in public, so most probably I will
always have that issue to deal with. I am investing alot in my profession as a dentist
in the US, so I think the chance of me pursuing both these careers here is much better
than back home.

LCC: To what extent is there an expatriate Iranian artistic community that
supports you and artists like you?

BM: There is a sizeable community of Iranian artists, writers
and thinkers spread around the globe, especially in the US and western
Europe. The community in general is supportive of one another, yet I don’t
think there is a systematic approach to it. The biggest problem I think is
that we don’t have a unified Iranian media outlet – like national tv, for
all Iranians outside of Iran. However, more popular Persian tv channels
broadcast outside of Iran, such as BBC Persian and Voice of America,
have played a great part in introducing talented Iranians to our compatriots
in the recent years.

LCC: Here in the US, or elsewhere, how do you communicate your music to
an audience that doesn’t speak Kurdish or Persian?

BM: The only way to communicate with them is to translate the lyrics in English
and give the audience those translations, although we have some obstacles here too.
Iranian literature is very difficult to translate into other languages if you don’t want
to lose its mystical meanings. So, it usually requires a professional who knows
both Farsi and English, as well as the literature, extremely well. Honestly,
this does not happen often in concerts and and it’s rare that brochures
include the lyrics. Personally speaking, I used the Farsi and English translation of
the Kurdish lyrics of my debut album “Goblet of Eternal Light” fpr the cd booklet.
What I’m hoping for  is that the sound of the music goes beyond the words and
reaches the audience regardless of their backgrounds. I believe that if a piece has a
theme of “eternal love”, the sound of the music and the feel and space of the piece
apart from the words) can bring the message home.

LCC: You could sing in English, or other languages as well, if you wanted.
Have you considered doing that? Maybe translating some of your songs?

BM: I can sing in Kurdish and Turkish as my parents’ roots go back to these
languages, and I am familiar with them. Also, I sang in Kurdish in
my first album released in the US, but I prefer to focus more on singing
in Farsi as it is my native language and I have been trained for Persian
classical singing. Non-native speakers often have strange, undesirable
accents.. That’s why, as of now,I don’t have much desire to sing in other
languages, but I will keep my options open.

LCC: What drove you to immerse yourself in Kurdish music? Did you end up
learning the language?

BM: I was familiar with the Kurdish language as my father is from a Kurdish
city but I was not considered a Kurdish speaker before singing on “Goblet
of Eternal Light”. I was so interested and passionate about learning
Kurdish maqams that I went to Maestro Ali Akbar Moradi to teach me
Kurdish songs and repertoire. I should mention that the Kurdish language
has different dialects itself and although I knew some Kurdish I couldn’t
understand many of the lyrics. Mr Moradi did a great job and taught me the
meaning of the poems and lyrics which later appeared on our album.

LCC: On Goblet of Eternal Light, you sing repertoire in various Kurdish dialects
that never would have been sung by the same person. Why is this? Why such a
difference in repertoire throughout the Kurdish world?

BM: Our album has a special focus which I think makes it quite unique: that is,
to act as a bridge to unite different Kurdish groups and tribes, which was
Maestro Moradi’s idea. The tanbur has been the original Kurdish instrument.
Tanbur songs accompanied Howrami poems; the tanbur has been mostly
associated with the Howrami dialect. This has kept non-Howrami
Kurds, particularly the Suran and Kormanj tribes, away from the tanbur. On this
album, we have used the work of other great poets such as Mahwi, Naali and
Guran with the hope of bring all Kurdish groups together, especially those
who were previously divided.

LCC: Do you still play the tanbur and the tar? How about in concert?

BM: I do not consider myself a professional tanbur or tar player. So, I do play
them every now and then, but not in public and never as a professional. I’d
rather focus on my work as a vocalist.

LCC: You have studied with some of the greatest artists in Persian music – Parissa,
who is thought by many to be the greatest singer in the Radif tradition, and
the great tanburist Seyed Amrollah Shah Ebrahimi. You’re on the Mandoo film
soundtrack, with the great oud virtuoso Negar Bouban, among others. This is
about as good as it gets in Persian music. Are there other achievements that you
have not yet reached, musically speaking? Any future plans we can look forward
to?

BM: I have been fortunate to have been on this long exciting journey, and I do
not consider it anywhere near finished yet. Studying voice with icons like Parissa,
Shahram Nazeri, Nourbakhsh and the legendary Shajarian has always been a source of
pride for me and Iconsider myself very lucky, but there is still a lot for me to achieve. I
want to reach a level of excellence in this area and find a style of my own and work with
great musicians, and basically keep learning and build my experience.

Recently I have been working with a young tanbur virtuoso, Mehdi Khani, and we
are planning to record and perform together in the near future. Mehdi Khani is a
writer and movie director and he is a great tanbur player too. He has composed
songs with roots deep in the sacred tunes of ancient Iran; these new pieces celebrate
music in its purest and simplest form. The combination of a solo instrument plus voice
has always been one of the most powerful types of music – especially if your intent is to
put a message across,or,  to be more specific, a universal message of peace and oneness
in the celebration of our true heavenly origins. As a vocalist, I’m so excited to work and
collaborate with him.

LCC: I’m curious  – you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to – how popular
is your music in Iran, or the Persian diaspora?

BM: I guess those people who follow classical music seriously are familiar with my
work despite the fact that I was not performing as a solo vocalist in Iran and my
previous work was as a harmony singer. It is totally a different situation
outside of Iran. Persian classical music draws a broader range of audiences in
Iran and I guess it is more appreciated there. The Iranian population
outside of Iran is more oriented to pop, jazz or rock

LCC: As a caricaturist, I understand your technique is pointillism. Are you
influenced by any of the western pointillists? Chuck Close?

BM: I was inspired by Norwegian illustrator Finn Graff’s technique when I was a teenager.
Although I was influenced by pointillism, I tried to find my own style
of exaggerating and drawing over the years and I think I’ve achieved it.

LCC: As intense as your music is, your portraiture is whimsical and funny. It’s not
what I expected at all. Is there a deliberate attempt on your part to keep the
drama and the fire in your music separate from the lighthearted wit and fun in
your visual art?

BM: This is exactly how you could describe me. I have been inspired by three
different interests and passions, which means living three different lives in parallel.
I intentionally keep these parts separate from each other, as I feel their nature
is different from one another. This is to give each of them their own character,
protecting their harmony from being affected by the other ones. On the
other hand, I can feel a mixture of drama and wit and fun inside me. Like anyone
else, I have many different feelings but as a professional I have to know when, where,
and how to use those feelings properly.

LCC: Tell us about the upcoming Symphony Space concert her in New York. You’re
playing with Ali Samadpour on tar. Just the two of you? What material can we
look forward to hearing?

BM: I will be performing with Ali Samadpour on tar and Navid Kandelousi on
tombak. Ali Samadpour is a very well-known musician and composer from Iran
and Navid Kandelousi is a great violinist and multi-instrumentalist from New York
who kindly agreed to play tombak with us. Ali has arranged classical songs from different
eras in Iran and I liked his ideas very much as they’re nothing like anything that has
previously been done with this repertoire. In western classical music, it’s
not unusual for a single performance to journey through different ages and
share the evolution of the music with the audience. I am thrilled that we will be
experimenting with this concept with our traditional music for the first time in
this concert, as it covers so many  different eras. Afterward we will perform some
of Ali’s songs, which are more stylistically modern. We will also perform one or two pieces
from Goblet of Eternal Light.

April 5, 2013 Posted by | Art, interview, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alicia Jo Rabins Comes Forward About Bernie Madoff

Eclectic violin virtuoso and composer Alicia Jo Rabins – formerly of Golem and currently with Girls in Trouble – has put together an intriguing new show titled A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. She debuted it here in New York Thursday night at Joe’s Pub. It’s billed as an attempt “to investigate the intersection of mysticism and finance, the inevitability of cycles, and the true meaning of wealth.” Hot on the heels of a sold-out show (the next one is also at Joe’s Pub on Thursday, Nov 15 at 7), Rabins was gracious to answer a few loaded questions about it:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Kaddish is something we say for the dead. Is Bernie Madoff dead?

Alicia Jo Rabins: Yes, Kaddish is the prayer for the dead – and it’s also, extremely rarely, used to mark excommunication, when a person becomes “dead” to the community, as in that amazing scene in the Jazz Singer. So I’m playing with that meaning and also with the idea of mortality – Madoff’s, and our own.

LCC: Do you find it particularly reprehensible that Madoff deliberately chose to victimize other Jews?

AJR: Well, in the piece I mention that these kinds of schemes are often referred to as affinity scams because people prey on those from their own community, taking advantage of the natural sense of trust that exists between people from a similar background. So – reprehensible, yes, and extreme – but surprisingly not uncommon.

LCC: In your research, how many of the main characters in this did you talk to? Madoff himself? Harry Markopoulos? Any of the SEC people? I remember how the Madoff family did a huge amount of PR for damage control, and then they disappeared, or tried to. Did you talk to any of them?

AJR: I decided not to approach the Madoff family because I wanted to maintain some sense of objectivity and distance from the central players in the story, and to look at it from the perspective of the supporting players – a lawyer defending the victims from clawbacks, an FBI agent on the case, a financial risk officer at a bank who advised against investing with Madoff and was initially rebuked.

LCC: Lurid as the scandal was, Madoff doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly interesting guy. He had a lot of stuff, and flaunted it, and that’s about all he seemed to be interested in. Or is there more to him than that?

AJR: I was actually interested in the many reports I read that Madoff did not particularly flaunt his wealth – in the rarified world of hedge funds, he was relatively modest  – still absurdly wealthy, but not particularly showy about it. Apparently that actually led people to trust him more. Learning that was one of the things that drew me deeper into the complexities of the story.

LCC: Considering that the biggest ponzi schemer of all time was once head of the NASDAQ stock exchange, what does this portend? How many other Madoffs are there out there? Or is it ultimately just one big casino?

AJR: I heard this question so many times in my research – people saying “Isn’t the whole stock market a giant ponzi scheme anyway?” I certainly don’t have the answer, but I think it’s an important question for America at this moment.

LCC: To what degree are we all implicated in this – for buying into the system that tolerates and even abets criminals like Madofff, or for foolishly believing that the system would thoroughly police itself?

AJR: I couldn’t agree more – if one can agree with a question. And I would add, how does this sort of belief or faith in capitalism tie into our spiritual condition as a nation at the moment? To what degree are we responsible for one another? These aren’t just theoretical questions. Should people making millions from stock trading have to contribute towards the health care of people making ten dollars an hour? Should higher education be subsidized for those who can’t afford it? I stay out of the political angle in this piece and focus more on the spiritual questions, but really, it’s all the same.

Alicia Jo Rabins plays A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff at Joe’s Pub this coming Thursday, Nov 15 at 7 PM: $15 tickets are still available as of today.

November 10, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elliott Sharp: Always on the Cutting Edge

When you think of downtown New York music, one of the first names that probably comes to mind is Elliott Sharp. The iconic guitarist and eclectic-to-the-extreme composer graciously took some time out of getting ready for his gig with his mind-warping Terraplane blues project tomorrow night at Joe’s Pub to shed some light on what he’s been up to recently, and less recently.

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’re playing Joe’s Pub at 9:30 this Sunday the 11th. Are you going to break out the sax or is this strictly a guitar gig this time? Any special guests we should know about?

Elliott Sharp: Though I played alto sax and bass clarinet on the new cd Sky Road Songs, I won’t be playing them on the gig, just for logistical reasons. Our producer Joe Mardin will appear with us playing keyboard, guitar, percussion, and on vocals.

LCC: You’ve written rock, and film music, and jazz, and synphonic works. At this point in your career, what else is there left for you to do? Is there a new passion that you’re looking to explore further in the coming years?

ES: Though I’ve written a number of operas already, it’s what I’m most interested now. My oepra “Port bou,” about the last day in the life of Walter Benjamin is in the works for 2014 through Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, and through a couple of presenters in Germany

LCC: As chameleonic as you’ve been, composition-wise, your music has a consistent edge. Do you find that edge missing in New York these days?

ES: Certainly it’s missing in Manhattan, though I do find a lot of younger musicians are hungry for that feeling and one finds an audience in some of the Brooklyn venues such as Zebulon, Death By Audio, Freedom Garden…

LCC: You came up as no wave was peaking, and have been a pillar of the avant garde since the 80s. And now there’s a new documentary about you. Can you tell us a little about that?

ES: The doc is by filmmaker Bert Shapiro and was made a few years ago – he covered aspects of my composing, performing, and conducting with my ensemble Orchestra Carbon and had crews in Venice at the Biennale in 2007 and during my tour in China in 2006 shoot footage. It also delves into my personal life – my wife Janene Higgins has all the best lines. Our twins make an appearance as well – they were two years old then.

LCC: When I hear you play, sometimes I hear a little Sonny Sharrock, or James Blood Ulmer…or Eddie Van Halen. Yet as I understand it one of your biggest influences is Hubert Sumlin, someone you’ve collaborated with – and studied with. You’re probably aware that he was also Jimi Hendrix’ favorite player. What did you gain most from working and studying with him?

ES: I loved Sonny Sharrock’s playing when I first heard him back in 1969 – we got to be friends and collaborators later. Jimi was also a huge influence and Hubert of course from before I even knew his name, just hearing him on Howlin’ Wolf records when I was seventeen in 1968 and just starting to play guitar. The country blues players as well. Van Halen not so much – I was doing finger-tapping starting from when I first began playing, influenced by John Cage, Harry Partch, Stockhausen, Xenakis. I learned a lot from Hubert – from listening to his recordings, about phrasing, vocalizing on the guitar, making noises. Then after meeting him, watching how he kept his right hand so loose!

LCC: Your publicist says you can come up with a list of your five favorite moments onstage. I’m impressed: half the time I get offstage and I can’t remember a thing I just did. Can you give us a quick rundown of those moments?

ES: I’m cursed with an excellent memory. Can’t say “favorite”, but key moments include:

1. The first time really entering the void while improvising onstage at a rock festival in Ithaca, NY in 1971with my band St. Elmo’s Fire

2. Performing “samizdat” forbidden concerts in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1983 – this also extends to performing Hungary in 1985 and in the Soviet Union in 1989 the incredible intensity of the listeners! This was like life-and-death for them!

3. Performing my piece Crowds And Power for 21 musicians in 1982 at the Kitchen – my first chance to manifest some of my sonic ideas for large ensemble for a big audience at a historic NY venue

4. Performing for 15000 people outdoors at Pori Festival in Finland with a wild ensemble including Sonny Sharrock, Joseph Jarman, Andrew Cyrille, Edward Vesala, Bobby Previte, Connie Bauer, Tomas Stanko, and more

5. The first performance with Hubert Sumlin in 1994 backing him up with Terraplane at the Knitting Factory – we had met in Chicago in 1983 but this was different – an incredible honor and thrill.

6. The premiere of my orchestra piece Racing Hearts in 1998 by the RadioSinfonie Frankfurt conducted by Peter Rundel. An unmatched experience to hear my sonic ideas come to life in this way.

LCC: You’ve collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Deborah Harry…lots of people. Do you have a favorite among them? Is that even a fair question?

ES: Not really – every collaboration is different and to be savored for what it is. Ideally, you are each putting in equally and I usually find this to be the case. To improvise with Nusrat and his ensemble in a tiny radio studio was overwhelming. I enjoy a fantastic ongoing collaboration with the JACK string quartet – always challenging and stimulating. Improvising in duo with such old friends as Nels Cline, Frances-Marie Uitti, Bobby Previte, Reinhold Friedl, is like the continuation of a ongoing and wide-ranging conversation

LCC: You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want, but I’m always curious how composers manage to keep a roof over their heads, and I know that royalties have dried up for lots of folks in recent years. What is your money gig these days? I know you do a lot of film and tv work…

ES: I still tour relentlessly – with two young children it’s difficult to say “no” to anything.

LCC: I always think of you as pushing the envelope and exploring new turf. To what extent is Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane at Joe’s Pub an oxymoron? Or is this a natural progression?

ES: Absolutely natural. Terraplane has played there before to good response. There’s not too many decent places to play in Manhattan plus Terraplane is an odd fit – we’re too weird for the blues clubs, too raucous for the jazz clubs, too unclassifiable for the rock clubs.

Tickets to the Joe’s Pub gig tomorrow night are $20 and are still available; the show starts at 9:30 sharp.

November 10, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, blues music, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Dozen Questions for Rising Star Violinist Hye-Jin Kim

Up-and-coming violin virtuoso Hye-Jin Kim is a passionate devotee of the arts, with an infectious joie de vivre. Hopefully at some future date – the Sunday, November 4 concert with the Greenwich Village Orchestra has been postponed – she’ll have the opportunity to rejoin this exciting ensemble for a performance. Prior to the recent hurricane, Kim graciously took some time out of her whirlwind schedule to entertain a few serious and not-so-serious questions about the show and her blossoming career:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’re playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Greenwich Village Orchestra on November 4. Does this piece have special resonance for you, or is this just a chance to gig with a good orchestra?

Hye-Jin Kim: I have always loved Mendelssohn’s music- chamber music, vocal, orchestral, piano, and of course the violin concerto – for the delicate texture and yet highly emotional content. I have not played this piece for some time other than teaching it, so I’m very excited to be performing it with the GVO. This month has become my Mendelssohn phase as I just finished playing an all-Mendelssohn chamber music program for a residency. It’s as good as it gets.

LCC: I love his music too – it’s so indomitable, and inspiring – it always cheers me up. As far as your concert is concerned, I’m always interested in how musicians connect. Is this your debut performance with this particular orchestra? Did they find you or did you find them? Either way, I know you’re in for a good time..

HJK: I worked with the GVO once before, performing the Scottish Fantasy by Bruch with the delightful Pierre Vallet, who was guest conductor for that concert. So I guess I can say that they found me again! I enjoyed every minute playing with them and I really thought we had something special together in the concert. I’m looking forward to working with conductor Barbara Yahr this time, and discovering new things about this concerto.

LCC: How did you ge so lucky as to study with Jaime Laredo and Ida Kafavian when you were 14?

HJK:Going to the Curtis Institute of Music to work with Jaime Laredo and Ida Kavafian is one of the most fortunate things that happened in my life, another one being studying with Miriam Fried, post-Curtis. I do not know how it all happened and I don’t think I was quite aware how lucky I was at the time since I was only 14 years old. I remember playing my auditions in front of the faculty members and thinking to myself “hmm, I don’t know any of them!” The next thing I remember is getting a phone call from Mr. Graffman who was the director of Curtis at the time and he told me that I would be working with Jaime and Ida. And the rest is history.

LCC: You won the Concert Artists Guild International Competition three years ago. I see a million competitions out there, with a million winners, and I get jaded. And yet, some of these players are tremendously good. To what extent has your victory helped your career?

HJK: I have done my share of competitions in the past and did well in some. However, CAG is a bit different in that it awards a management contract to winners. It helped me connect with many musicians and presenters in the performing arts scene..

LCC: I can’t help but notice how busy your concert schedule is. How do you find the time, and the energy, and the focus, to shift between genres, and ensembles, and sometimes play the role of educator?

HJK: It definitely has been a challenge in recent years since I took a teaching position at East Carolina University not too long ago in addition to actively playing solo and chamber music. I find joy in all the things I do in this stage of my career and whether it is a concerto, recital, ensemble, or teaching, what I am doing at the moment is my favorite thing. This mindset helps me stay fresh and energized.

LCC: Every single quote I see about string players from the mainstream classical music press concerns an artist’s tone. Isn’t there a lot, lot more to it than tone – phrasing, dynamics, emotional attunement, the works? Besides, a lot of it depends on the instrument, anyway, right? Do you ever find yourself worrying about your tone?

HJK: Tone for a player is like a person’s personality or character. And with that individual, unique tone, you create phrasing, dynamics, and bring out emotions in music. So I feel that all this is very closely related. It does somewhat depend on the kind of instrument you play, but the tone you create should be from you, not the instrument.

What I search for in my playing is how to shape and use my tone to best express the music I play. To me, that challenge is especially fun.

LCC: Like most string players, you do a lot of chamber music gigs. Is there one particular repertoire, or musical era, that you find yourself gravitating toward especially? I see you like Bach which is always a good sign…

HJK: Bach is my musical home. From there I begin all my other musical journeys to different composers and repertoire. So it’s always nice to come home to Bach as often as I can.

I enjoy playing Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. I know it’s not too original, but I like digging very deep into feelings and emotions like Beethoven and Schubert did.

These days, I spend much time studying and listening to two great English composers with genuine, unique qualities, Elgar and Britten.

LCC: What violin do you play, how old is it and what is its provenance? How did you acquire it?

HJK: I play the Gioffredo Cappa circa 1687. It was crafted in Saluzzo, Italy but 320 years later it ended up in Boston and met me.

LCC: Hmmmm…ok. Now they said you were temperamental in Helsinki. Is that true?

HJK: If they said so!

LCC: That’s a media quote. I stole it from your website.

HJK: It was very cold around the time I played in Helsinki. So I think it was a good thing.

LCC: I see you’re a Phillies fan. I offer my condolences for this year – although the way they came back, after trading away half the team, was impressive. Are you psyched for next year and maybe watching Chase Utley move to third?

HJK: Thank you for your condolences. The September rush was exciting although it was short-lived. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m “psyched” for next year. With the Phillies lately it’s half excitement and half worries about the core guys’ lingering injuries. I think if Halladay comes back strong we will have a shot at having a good season. I really hope that the three young starting pitchers will pitch in the World Series for the Phillies together before the older two, Halladay and Lee, get too old. And I think next year should be the year for them.

I don’t think they will move Utley to third after all and I’m hoping they won’t. I love watching Jimmy Rollins and Utley turning double plays! But who knows…They have many holes to fill in and I’m looking forward to what this off-season holds for them.

LCC: You’re also a devotee of 19th century English Literature. If you could meet one author from that era, who would it be?

HJK: Charlotte Bronte. I visited her home in Yorkshire a couple years ago. I was humbled seeing the stark and severe setting and life circumstances she faced. You get a strong sense of that rough-edged life from her characters, and yet there is incredible beauty and sensitivity in her work. I think that underneath the severe expression she wears in portraits, and from the subjects she addressed in her writing, Charlotte Bronte must have had a tender, if not vulnerable, heart.

LCC: What I’m getting at with all these crazy questions is that a lot of audiences tend to take musicians for granted . If you’re onstage, you’re expected to deliver perfection 100% of the time – audiences sometimes forget that the musicians are everyday people, too, with the same kind of interests, for example, in books and baseball and movies as everybody else. Are those lofty expectations ever exasperating for you?

HJK: I wouldn’t say so. I believe there should be more effort from the performer’s end to communicate their thoughts about music-making and about life beyond the performing world. I try to put together concerts and recitals that reflect my literary interests and to combine those two worlds that I love. I am yet to figure out how baseball would go with music. Maybe that will just have to remain my secret passion!

LCC: Here’s an idea, I’m sure somebody did this before, but I’ll bet there hasn’t been a violinist playing the national anthem before a game in awhile. Think of all the fans who would hear you, it would be good exposure – and that song is a lot easier to play than it is to sing!

Hye-Jin Kim’s performance of the Mendelssohn with the Greenwich Village Orchestra at 3 PM on Sunday, November 4 at the Old Stuyvesant Campus, 345 E 15th St (between 1st/2nd Aves) has been postponed: watch this space for a rescheduled date.

October 19, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Insights from Awardwinning Conductor David Bernard of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

Most cities are lucky to have a single symphony orchestra. Here in New York, classical music audiences have a far greater number of ensembles to choose from. Not only do we have the flagship New York Philharmonic, we’ve got several other first-rate orchestras, some of them simmering just under the radar. One of the finest of these ensembles is the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, a full-size symphony orchestra led by charismatic maestro David Bernard. Their 2012-13 season begins this October 27 at 8 PM with a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished;” Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks and the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor” with Terry Eder on piano, at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St, between Second and Third Avenues. Maestro Bernard took some time away from his schedule to shed some light on what he and the Chamber Symphony have in store for this season:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: First of all, congratulations for winning a First Prize in the Orchestral Conducting Competition of the American Prize. Was there a winning performance, and what was the victorious piece?

David Bernard: Thanks. I am very proud, not only of this, but also for being awarded a First Prize in Orchestral Performance together with the orchestra. Both awards are great recognition. The primary work in the Conducting Competition submission was the performance of Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung – Death and Transfiguration – from October 2011 – which I believe you attended.

LCC: Yes, I was there. That’s a piece that’s very close to my heart, which explains why I’ve seen it performed several times. In fact, I was transfixed by your version: the dynamic range and attention to detail surpassed any performance of that piece that I’ve witnessed. Needless to say, I never expected that a “chamber symphony” would deliver my alltime favorite version of Tod und Verklarung! Which leads me to the next question: as anyone who’s seen the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in concert will attest, your orchestra is a mighty beast. But one hears the term “chamber symphony” and thinks of maybe a twelve-piece string orchestra. Is that how the group originated? Do you think the name fits at this point?

DB: Yes, our name is a frequent point of discussion, especially when we program larger repertoire. Certainly an orchestra that performs Mahler with a complement of eighty is not a “chamber orchestra.” When we started thirteen years ago, we were an orchestra of twenty-two. When it came time to choose a name, we had a feeling we would grow, so rather than use the name “chamber orchestra” we chose “chamber symphony,” which suggests a larger complement of musicians. We were, in fact, a little small to be a “chamber symphony” at the time, but when we did grow larger, it suited us. Currently, with seventy to eighty members depending on the repertoire, we are not so large yet as to call ourselves a “philharmonic” of say a hundred performers. I see “chamber symphony” as descriptive of that upper middle ground, which is quite versatile, as we can effectively deliver performances of a wide range of repertoire, from Bach to Mahler, in our intimate venue. But I am sure this will be an ongoing discussion, and perhaps sometime down the road we will change our name to reflect our growth.

LCC: You founded the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony thirteen years ago. What are your favorite, most memorable experiences?

DB: There are so many. Our many performances at New York’s major venues – Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall. Our performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with a chorus of more than 200 singers at Riverside Church. Working with Whoopi Goldberg as the narrator in our performance of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”. And of course our tour of China this past Winter.

LCC: Tell me about that tour of China. I imagine you have a lot of stories. How did the invitation to play there originate? How do the concert halls and audiences in China compare to what we have over here? Did you have to leave your phone with customs and pick it up on the way out?

DB: The Chinese were very gracious and attentive, and they didn’t have an interest in my cell phone – which is a good thing, for it came in very handy dealing with the many logistical hurdles that typically accompany a nine-city tour like ours! We were invited to perform a series of holiday concerts in China after a representative of China attended one of our performances in New York City. It was an extraordinary experience for the entire orchestra. Our performance itinerary of nine cities in fifteen days – Beijing, Qingdao, Dalian, Jinzhou, Chaoyang, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shenyang and Xi’an – was a bit of a whirlwind, but it was very exciting and through the experience, the orchestra bonded on a more personal level. The concerts were held in the major concert halls in each city, some of which were absolutely spectacular. I would certainly put Beijing Concert Hall, Qingdao Grand Theater, Shenzhen Symphony Hall, Xi’an Concert Hall and Xinghai Symphony Hall in Guangzhou in the same class as the best American concert halls in terms of acoustics and overall quality. Since these concerts were billed as holiday concerts, our repertoire was mostly light classical – Strauss’ Die Fledermaus Overture, Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, etcetera, as well as two Chinese works: Dance of the Yao Tribe, which is a gorgeous work by Liu Tieshan and Mao Yuan, and In Praise of the Red Flag, by Lü Qiming. Audiences were very enthusiastic, especially when we performed the Chinese works. An interesting tidbit is the special affinity the Chinese have for Strauss’ Radetzky March, which must be played as the last of many encores. The custom is that when the Radetzky March is performed, the political leaders exit the hall first while the audience claps its hands to the beat of the march – and we had some very enthusiastic clappers, I must say! We also performed some American music. Copland’s Hoe Down from Rodeo was a big hit – again the audience couldn’t help but clap along – as was an arrangement of Bernstein’s West Side Story, and music from John Williams’ Star Wars. In some concerts, I did a quick change into a Darth Vader costume and conducted the Star Wars music with a light saber. The Chinese loved it – Star Wars is very popular there.

LCC: That’s a great idea, I think more conductors should consider using a light saber – at least the kind that doesn’t go “mmmmmmmm.” Now in my estimation, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony ranks among New York’s best orchestras – and by that I mean the New York Phil, obviously; the Greenwich Village Orchestra, who never disappoint; the imaginative, theatrically-inclined Chelsea Symphony; the Brooklyn Phil, who do everything from Beethoven to hip-hop; and the Knights, who always seem to be having fun as they jump from century to century. How do you differentiate yourselves? Would you say that there’s a defining characteristic to the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony?

DB: I am really excited about the overall concert experience we offer our audiences. We combine very high quality music making, eclectic and interesting repertoire, first-rate soloists and an intimate venue into a compelling and inexpensive package that our audiences love. Concertgoers are ecstatic about all of this, but especially the intimacy. They say that we make the concert experience come alive through experiencing not only themusic, but the musicians in a much more personal way than a traditional concert—they feel almost as though they are IN the orchestra. This is a big difference to traditional concert venues, which tend to put the audience at a distance. Also, we perform regularly on the Upper East Side. The East Side of Manhattan hasn’t traditionally been the hub for the arts, so through our concert series at All Saints Church – located around the corner from Bloomingdales – we serve as a key cultural resource to this community.

Our mission does not end with our concert season. We work very hard to support music education organizations through fundraising and benefit concerts. Arts institutions are facing difficult times and if you believe in the arts as a cornerstone of society, we need now more than ever, communities that are both arts aware and arts involved. A great way to achieve this goal is to help arts education programs thrive in our schools so we can develop well-rounded people who attend concerts and maybe even donate to their local arts organizations. Through the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s fundraising efforts, we have helped establish a new Scholarship Fund for students at the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division and have raised money for the Lucy Moses Community Music School’s Suzuki Scholarship Program. We have established a particularly longstanding relationship with The Harmony Program—a New York City organization that provides music lessons to economically disadvantaged children and is modeled after Venezuela’s world-famous model of music education, “El Sistema”

LCC: That intimacy between orchestra and audience, I think, really defines the concert experience that the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has to offer – the atmosphere at All Saints Church really is like being a part of the orchestra. How did you end up there?

DB: Although we have had the privilege of performing in New York’s major concert halls throughout the years, our home has usually been in a New York City church. In 2005, we began an exhaustive search for a new home and found All Saints Church. It has wonderful acoustics, and while being intimate, can also handle performances of large works such as Strauss and Mahler. Over the years we have developed a very strong partnership with All Saints Church. But even early on in our relationship, the church relocated their front set of pews to make room for our string section! We are fortunate to have such a great partner.

LCC: This season’s concluding concerts on May 4 and 5 of 2013 feature the absolutely brilliant pianist Kariné Poghosyan joining the orchestra for the Mozart Concerto for Piano No. 23 in A major, a piece that it seems would be effortless for her. I’m always interested in how musical connections are made. How did this one come about?

DB: We had our eye on Kariné for several years, and finally engaged her to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at our February 2011 concert series. We had a fantastic collaboration. She was superb and both the audience and the orchestra loved her. This season, as I was looking for a concerto to complement the Kraft work with Tchaikovsky’s rich and passionate Fifth Symphony, this particular Mozart piano concerto – and Ms. Poghosyan – instantly came to mind. It turned out she was eager to play that work, so it was kismet! She is a brilliant and sensitive artist, and we look forward to working with her again.

LCC: Like the New York Phil, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has a lot of recordings, which can all be heard or at least sampled on your music page – everything from the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2, to Dvorak, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Gershwin, the Four Seasons and the Barber Adagio. Which are all probably the best advertising you could ever get. Do you record every concert you play? Do you have a favorite among them?

DB: The most exciting thing about our catalog of recordings is that it represents a portal to a whole new international audience. We record many of our concerts, which you cansample on our website or download/stream in full using a wide range of sources: iTunes, Amazon.com, Google Play, Spotify and MOG, to name a few. And as you point out, it is great for marketing and brand-building. Looking at our logs, we have regular streamers from around the globe! Picking a favorite is difficult. I love them all, as they are the result of great music making experiences with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony.

LCC: I’m always curious about how conductors come up with a choice of repertoire for their concert seasons. For example, this season’s opening concert series, on October 27th and 28th is rather eclectic: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Strauss’ Till Eulenspeigel and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with soloist Terry Eder. You’ve got plenty of gravitas, but also quirky frivolity. What is your programming game plan?

DB: Programming a season is similar to solving a Rubik’s Cube: there are many dimensions that must be solved for simultaneously. One must balance the variety and selection of works throughout the season with the adjacencies of works within each program, audience preferences, the introduction of new repertoire, inclusion of the familiar and recency of past performances. I have a few longer- term initiatives as well—completing our cycles of Beethoven and Brahms Symphonies as well as cycle of Strauss’ Tone Poems. So each season our audiences are treated to at least one Beethoven Symphony – this season we have programmed two, the First and the Seventh. We will complete the Beethoven cycle next Fall with the Second Symphony and the Strauss Cycle next Fall with Don Juan. The Brahms Cycle will be completed in 2014.

I also love to premiere new works and expand the repertoire. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has a rich history of programming premieres, including works by Bruce Adolphe, Chris Caswell and John Mackey. Last season we premiered a jazz piano concerto written and performed by Ted Rosenthal, which was especially satisfying as Ted is an extraordinary musician, composer and performer: we subsequently released a recording of this work which is available on iTunes and Amazon.com. And in May we will be giving the New York Premiere of Leo Kraft’s Variations for Orchestra. We have a deep and ongoing commitment to the music of our time.

Within a single program, I often enjoy programming works of similar lineage that also represent great variety. Our October program of Schubert, Strauss and Beethoven is an example, representing the finest Germanic symphonic music, yet each work offers a distinctly unique experience. Despite its popularity, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony refuses to become stale with sublime, timeless and unforgettable phrases. You can feel Schubert’s soul in every note as he guides you through a wild ride that ends with a spiritual ascent. In Till Eulenspeigel, Strauss offers a highly programmatic and exciting account of the antics of a 14th-century prankster that is masterfully crafted and scored. It offers great contrast to the Schubert and I think it’s a marvelous way to close the first half of the program. Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is in many ways a synthesis of both the Schubert and the Strauss across the stream of movements, we get heroism, deeply felt melancholy and a frolicking romp to a triumphant conclusion that ties the evening together. I hope that by the end of the program our audience will be energized, enlightened and entertained in a way that only classical music can offer.

September 15, 2012 Posted by | classical music, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lucid Culture Interview: The Miller Theatre’s Melissa Smey

This blog takes a generally dim view of booking agents and talent buyers. Driven and sometimes desperate for filthy lucre, there’s no telling how low some of them will go to fill the seats wherever they happen to be. One notable exception is Melissa Smey, the enthusiastic director at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre uptown. An unabashed fan of a staggering number of genres from one end of the musical spectrum to the other, over the last two years she’s booked a diversity of programming unrivalled at any other music venue in New York, and for that matter, maybe the world. The Miller Theatre’s 2012-13 season includes lush, majestic choral music, a vast supply of cutting-edge indie classical ensembles, and an exciting jazz series featuring the bands of Christian McBride, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Wycliffe Gordon, among others. In addition to running the theatre, she also heads up the Columbia Arts Initiative to help encourage students to make the arts a regular part of their lives. Somehow she found the time to shed some light on this:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: What is your agenda here – other than to put bodies in the seats?

Melissa Smey: I absolutely love working in the arts, promoting the arts and developing new audiences, and supporting the composers, musicians, and ensembles we work with so they can realize their artistic vision. I think arts and culture should be a part of everyone’s daily life. It shouldn’t be a luxury or feel unattainable.

LCC: Is there a legacy here left behind by George Steel – who moved on to the New York City Opera, I believe – and if so, what is that legacy and how do you plan to keep it going – or not?

MS: I think one of George Steel’s most incredible contributions to Miller Theatre, and to the field of contemporary music, was the creation of the Composer Portraits series. The format, now nationally recognized and widely emulated, showcases a range of works by a single composer. Since the series was founded, in 1999, we have featured over 100 composers, from Steve Reich, John Zorn, and Julia Wolfe, to Kaija Saariaho, Helmut Lachenmann, and Chaya Czernowin. It’s at the heart of Miller’s programming and very close to mine! Not only have I kept it going, I’m committed to making sure the idea stays current. I’ve made commissioning new work an important component. Last season we featured world premiere performances of new works by John Zorn, Hilda Paredes, and Georges Aperghis. This coming season we’re working with Enno Poppe and Julio Estrada. More are in the works (really good ones!). Also, I’ve made it a priority to bring as many composers as possible to Miller Theatre, we host them in residence of four to five days so they can work closely with the musicians in rehearsal. We also have an onstage discussion right after intermission, and we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about this from our audience.

LCC: You must really love what you do, since you do so much of it. How many of the shows that you book do you actually get the opportunity to see?

MS: You are right – I really do love what I do. I attend every performance we produce or present. Perhaps I’m still in the newlywed phase as an arts programmer, but I love every performance that goes into the Miller season and I actually want to be there for each of them. I think this enthusiasm is part of what helps us to make a genuine connection with our audiences.

LCC: You’re a musician yourself. What’s your instrument…and do you ever get the chance to play anymore?

MS: I was a flute player for many years, played recorder and sang in a collegium group, and last summer I dabbled a bit with ukulele – not well!

LCC: It seems pretty obvious to me that you have the luxury of being able to pick and choose from among the best performers, across the musical spectrum, in pretty much its entirety. Which ultimately reflects very well on you: the Miller Theatre may not have been a prestige venue ten years ago, but it is now. As someone who has put together a show or two myself, I’m always curious about how these things happen: so many of them seem completely random, although not at your place. Could you give me a rough guess as to how many of the acts on the schedule were pitched to you, whether by the artists themselves, or their agents, versus the shows you came up with on your own?

MS: For the most part, we actively produce all of our performances. It’s my goal to curate a season of programs that can’t be seen or heard anywhere else. I embrace a repertoire-centered approach to programming, I care about each individual piece. For Composer Portraits, I collaborate with the composers and musicians to develop a program that is unique, demonstrates the breadth of the composer’s work, and shows the ensemble to best advantage. We try to feature works for larger forces that are more difficult for ensembles to self-produce in smaller venues. Increasingly, I’m bringing these same values to our Early Music and Jazz series. It’s a process, but it’s important to me to build relationships with musicians and ensembles so we can work together to develop new programs that are truly made at Miller.

LCC: The Miller Theatre’s diversity of programming is even more astonishing. Your season kicks off on September 12 with Le Poeme Harmonique singing early Venetian music; you’ve paired the frivolity of John Cage with Rzewski’s crushingly difficult, intense The People…you’re introducing all sorts of up-and-coming composers…even the jazz runs the gamut, from Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indian-flavored hard bop to Wycliffe Gordon’s purist style. Literally something for everyone, from way, way outside the mainstream, to music that’s accessible to the nth degree. Your job seems to me to be the equivalent of on-the-job training for a doctorate in music. Is that true – and is that deliberate on your part, to expose yourself to as many different styles and schools of thought as possible?

MS: My goal is to embrace great music regardless of genre. The most important criteria to me is whether it’s something I’d enjoy listening to for two hours. And is it something that I want to experience live, not just study with recordings or scores. I love that at Columbia, which historically was the home of ‘uptown music’, we can now program portraits of Pierre Boulez and Julia Wolfe in immediate succession.

LCC: I think we both agree that good music can be financially lucrative. Yet the Miller Theatre has a leg up on other venues since it has its own line in the Columbia University budget. To what degree does that liberate you from having to fret over whether or not a certain concert, or even a series, has to turn a profit?

MS: We are incredibly lucky, and deeply grateful, to have the full support of Columbia University behind us. And being a campus-based presenter provides amazing opportunities for audience development – there is an entire class of potential new audience members coming to campus every fall! The University embraces research and innovation across an astonishing variety of disciplines, and it’s no different for us at Miller. That said, we do have to raise the money to underwrite every single performance we put on the Miller stage. We’ve made a commitment to keeping ticket prices low. This means, like all non- profits, we have to raise money to fill the gap between what we earn in ticket sales and what it costs to produce performances.

LCC: The toughest job you have, it seems to me, is being in charge of fundraising. What kind of hoops do you find yourself having to jump through in these difficult times? Where do you turn when a reliable source of revenue suddenly vanishes?

MS: It’s been a tough few years for cultural organizations in general and for contemporary music in particular. Some major foundations that funded contemporary music in New York City, like the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust and the Greenwall Foundation, have ceased their operations. We’ve looked increasingly to individuals for support of our programs. I believe we are poised for success in this area – we’ve seen increases in both subscribers and single ticket buyers over the last three years and we’re getting rave reviews for our programming from journalists and audiences alike. For an individual looking to make a difference in supporting contemporary music in New York City, there is really no better investment than Miller Theatre because every dollar we raise goes directly into producing the art on our stage.

LCC: I’m all for free beer as long as it isn’t my beer that’s being given away, but doesn’t the idea of a pop-up concert, as your series of early-evening indie classical shows is called, run completely counter to the idea of substantial music? Like a pop-up hospital, or a pop-up fire department? Or is this simply a kind of branding to lure the idle classes out of their Bushwick lofts? For that matter, do you really think that the idle classes can be lured out of Bushwick to begin with, let alone as far uptown as 116th Street? Even with free beer?

MS: I developed the Pop Up Concerts so I would have an outlet for the brilliant musicians and programs that aren’t a natural fit in one of our other series. I also wanted the freedom to schedule a concert on short notice – our season programming is booked 18-24 months in advance. What distinguishes these concerts from our others is the size of the ensembles – two to five musicians – and the intimacy of the setting. The caliber of the performances is the same for everything we do: excellent. All of the concerts were completely packed.

LCC: Well, with free beer…

MS: People stayed long after the music ended to chat and mingle with the musicians and each other. I wanted a format that would feel like hanging out in a living room listening to good music with your friends. I love the intimate feel between the audience and with the performers at venues like the Stone and the Village Vanguard. I think it helps listeners to make a closer connection to the artists and the music.

LCC: Tell me about Morningside Lights, your puppet parade for families, and for everybody else too. That sounds like a lot of fun…

MS: The Morningside Lights workshops, September 22 to 28 and procession on the 29th are going to be so much fun! We’re building on the partnerships we developed when we produced John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit in Morningside Park in June 2011. I love taking music out of the concert hall and finding ways to connect with the community. For this project, we’re collaborating with Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles of Processional Arts Workshop, the composer Nathan Davis, and the Friends of Morningside Park. It will be unlike anything else we’ve ever done.

LCC: What do you listen to at home? Wild guess: Dolly Parton? L’il Kim? Pauline Oliveros? Or after a day full of sound, do you prefer silence?

MS: I listen to everything. I’ve always been a fan of indie rock, I’m going to Grizzly Bear at Radio City and ATP [All Tomorrow’s Parties] next month. I’m also willing to admit that I listen to a fair amount of pop music on the radio, Gooset Brown has a cool show on WBLS Friday after work that I’ll sometimes catch.

September 6, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, experimental music, interview, jazz, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment