Monday, July 24, 2006

We're Almost There

Now I know that this place has been kind of empty. There are no excuses (well except for me being in the hospital again) but I've been keeping an eye on this little blog of mine and I see it reaching the 1000 hits mark.

Nothing could make me happier.

So I want to say thank you to everyone who's stopped by (or stumbled upon) our little page. It's boosted my confidence extremely. And I have big plans for the coming months like podcasts and interviews (that's what happens when you graduate from college) so stay tuned! We're allowed to go on a little hiatus, no?

If Alex Ross can...

Next time on Contrary Motion: In Memoriam - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and The Shostakovich Centenary.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Putting A Subjective Idea Into An Objective Box

It's that time of year again --- no, not March Madness (even though it is that, too --- go tarheels) --- time for auditions for collegiate musicians across America. I myself have fallen into that trap, preparing for my grad school auditions and one topic kept appearing during my conversations with many other musicians undergoing the same plight. How do you take something as subjective as music, and even more so an audition and frame it in an objective way that can be understood by all?

"Well if the stars are aligned, the weather is just right, my instrument is fine, I'm not sick and someone sprinkles me with fairy dust then maybe i'll be fine."

True, there will always be a level of the audition process that is easy. Sometimes you have people who are amazing and you have people who are less than stellar. Those are the easy decisions. But most of the time, it's a little bit more complicated than that. Usually, it involves deciding which one has a better vibrato, more musical interpretation (that you can agree with), choice of tempi, the smallest, most minute things that make the difference. And this is where there's a difference of opinion. Sometimes as a musician, it's out of your control. They may not like your sound that day or there just may be someone they like more.

Then how do we as musicians deal with that?

This does not apply just to college musicians. The same goes for auditions in professional symphonies. I've heard stories of orchestras closing auditions for a time because they just weren't pleased with anyone that day and asked everyone to come back, no fault to them. For them, there's much more at stake. The relationship between that of the musician and the symphony is one that can last for several years and, in many instances, bear fruit for both parties.

But honestly, the audition is the not first place in music where we come to this dilemma. Critics and reviewers, historians and just your average listener encounter this daily. What if I don't like a piece of music that the collective tells me is a masterwork? As it stands, judging on any level is completely human and will always occur in every facet of art. How we choose to judge what we listen to do and what we think is good, whether it is buying a recording or deciding who gets into college, is an aspect of the human mind that I'll leave others more skilled than I to evaluate.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Just Give Me Two Weeks

So, we all know that in life, there are things that take over all one's time. For me, that just so happens to be the recital i'll be giving in two weeks from tomorrow. After that's over, I can devote myself to all my other loves, including Contrary Motion! I have a whole spiel about that hooplah that is Mozart's 250th birthday among other things so, John, take the wheel. I (unfortunately) have a performance to plan.

Till then, blogosphere. (Oh man, i hate that word.)

Friday, January 27, 2006

Overheard in the Coffee Mill

While I sat at the bar today, sipping my cup of coffee and reading Gunther Schuller's history of conducting, two Coffee Mill employees were talking about a tank toppy/skirt garment that one of them made:

A: See, I wish I had an education in doing measurements and all that, since I suck at that part. This was originally supposed to be a skirt, and look.
B: Well, it seems to have worked out okay. You'll get an education in that eventually, right?
A: Yeah, I will.
B: But sometimes, it's good to do that without an education. If you get an education in it, then you can't do it as freely, because your eye has been trained a certain way.
A: I suppose.
B: And if you've got real talent in something, you can do it without an education.


I'm not sure that I agree with this argument against the value of education. Perhaps it's because I've benefitted so much from the education I've received. I know that I wouldn't be one-tenth the musician I am now without having spent so many years almost single-mindedly devoted to the betterment of my artistic skills.

I very strongly get the impression that non-artists give too much credit to "innate talent"--whatever that is--when trying to explain proficiency in the arts, making virtuosi out to be blessed with powers supernatural or magical. I contend that it's nothing of the sort. The arts are like anything else in this regard--you can become fluent in them if you immerse yourself deeply enough in them for a long enough period of time. The lion's share of the work is in learning the craft--the rest is simply in learning how to use that craft in a way that people can, in some sense, relate to. There's a very distinct reason that Sir Simon Rattle once said that, for just one example, "all great conductors are over 60. You and I are no exception."

Of course, the importance of lengthy study and practice of an art does not necessarily imply schooling, at least not in the formal sense. Some of the most fluent artists in the world never had formal training. That said, however, they weren't fueled by fairy dust, pacts with Satan, or the Force. They lived and breathed their art, and their devotion and training--informal though it was--helped them to cultivate their genius.

I would argue that on a certain fundamental level an artist is no different than a lawyer, a surgeon, or any other specialist. A surgeon is not born with a supernaturally-endowed talent for triple-bypass surgery--her elegant incisions and life-saving transplants once may have appeared to be magical, but now appear almost mundane. Nor, I suspect, do lawyers have a magical gift for brazenly mocking all semblance of common sense--though Michael Jackson's lawyer might yet prove me wrong.

I'm not sure why this particular conversation struck such a chord in me. I think it's because there seems to be a continually growing disconnect between the average person and the artist. The culture industry (danke schoen, Herr Adorno) has helped create consumers who often, upon experiencing the work of a master, either pass it off as elitist pap or, conversely, deify it and in doing so forfeit any serious attempt at a critical understanding of the work. The appreciation of a work of art requires at least some critical thought, and while worshippers at the altar of talent honestly and happily believe themselves to be participating in that critical exchange of ideas, the conversation simply washes over them. Dig into your arts and your culture, folks. Don't be afraid to form an opinion. Come back into the conversation.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Birgit Nilsson, 87

For all of you opera fans out there, I read some sad news today--Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson died on January 1, at the age of 87. One of the most well-known sopranos of her time, she made her operatic debut in Sweden on three days' notice (in Der Freischutz) in 1946, her American debut in 1956, debuted at the Met in 1959 in Tristan und Isolde in 1959, and remained a powerful figure on stage until her retirement in 1984. Thankfully for us listeners, recordings were made at one point or another of all of the major roles she played throughout her career.

I'm still a relative newcomer to opera, but am learning to appreciate it more as I go. I've heard her in the Decca recordings of Der Ring des Nibelungen, and they're powerful examples of a vocalist at the height of her craft. I look forward also to hearing her in some of the bigger Italian operas like Turandot and Tosca. Since Nilsson quite famously sung the role of Brunnhilde in the Ring Cycle, it is more than a little tempting at this point to make a joke about the fat lady singing--I'd not be the first to do so, nor, undoubtedly, would I be the last. Suffice it to say, however, that the world of opera has lost one of its giants, and she will sorely be missed.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A Past That Is Tangible

Over lunch with a few friends of mine i hadn't seen in maybe a year, we got to talking about our majors in college --- something I suppose all friends do. I asked one of my friends the meaning of her major (Public History) and she told me her specialization was 18th Century Colonialism in the South up to 1776. She then asked about my specialization (for my musicology degree) and I said Early 20th Century America up to 1945 --- she thought it was a scintilating choice. When I said those words, for the first time, a shiver went down my spine and I got to thinking, what is it that led me to this time period, this choice out of the 300 years of history regarding the Western art music tradition. I have always been fascinated it, but why?

A couple of days after this, I found myself watching "Rhapsody in Blue", a fictional biopic about George Gerswhin. There is a scene where Gershwin's "teacher" is telling him to listen to the musical voice inside him like Schubert, Wagner and Beethoven. And then he shows Gershwin a manuscript that was given to him and signed by Brahms. I felt this same chill I had felt at lunch the previous day and it didn't stop there. At Gershwin's premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, the likes of Rachmaninoff and Heifetz showed their faces. And while Gershwin was in Paris, working on what would be An American in Paris, he was introduced to Ravel. Throughout all of this, I was filled with this sense of awe, even though i knew that only so much of this was true. And then, amidst all of these random thoughts and questions, it clicked.

For me, I had always found it very difficult to relate to Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn because of the distance between myself and them. I have no real concept of the age in which they lived other than what I learn in school. But Stravinsky, Dvorak, Mahler, Bartok, Schoenberg all seem so tangible, living in a time that i know, that i'm familiar with --- the time of my grandparents and parents. Living in New York City does nothing but enhance this, passing a house where Mahler lived, playing in a hall where Dvorak's works were premiered. The places have changed but only very little. The knowledge that I am only so far removed from genius, that they were walking, talking and composing is mind-boggling. There is also the question of will we, as in my generation, see another renaissance like the one happening in America in the first 50 years of the 20th century. I often ask my colleagues if we'll ever see another Mozart or Beethoven or does the world that we live in make it impossible fo that to happen. It's a troubling thought knowing that only a short time ago, the time of my parents' childhood, Leonard Bernstein was producing his Young People's Concerts on television, a major network at that.

We may never see something like that again in our lifetime, maybe not for many, many years but as long as we have memories, like that of my teacher who felt that same chill when she took music out of a file cabinet that had Hindemith's signature on it when she studied at Yale, hopefully, people will continue to be inspired. And then maybe, just maybe, something might be done about that whole next American renaissance.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Every Ending a Beginning

There is a term for a musical phrase whose ending serves also as the beginning of the next: an elision. Few musical phenomena have such fitting symbolic use at this time of year, as one year melts into the next. Honestly, January 1 is an arbitrary date, and constitutes no more official a beginning than does Chinese New Year or Rosh Hashanah. But as humans we seem to need beginnings and endings as a way of measuring our progress and reminding ourselves of both the tragedy and the miracle of our own mortality.

So every year, as December 31 passes into January 1, I celebrate the many elisions that have come and gone in the passing year. I want to take a brief moment to thank the few people who actually read this silly thing. It's an outlet, and is important to me even solely as such. But for those of you who do read it, I hope you enjoy reading it even half as much as I enjoy writing in it.

Here's to the upcoming year, the beginning of some wonderful experiences, happiness and health. Cheers!