After many hours in the studio, I’ve cobbled together a nice clean version of Shy and Mighty, which Dave Kaplan and I recorded back in February. Listen to some full tracks here. Special thanks go to Gene Kimball and Jason Robins at the Fred Plaut recording studio for all their instruction and patience.
I got better-than-front-row seats to last night’s Lisa Moore/Karen Bentley Pollick concert at Klavierhaus (page turning). The highlight for me was getting to hear them play Sam Adams’s Aves Nostradamus, one of the most maddening and nerve-wracking pieces I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on (back in December). That’s why it was so much fun to sit back and listen to other people go to town. It’s a terrifically exciting and spastic piece which uses lots of extended piano and violin techniques without ever seeming gimmicky or strained (this Fazioli piano took a lot of abuse from Lisa; it looked to be about 13 feet long and I’m told it costs $200,000).
Sam doesn’t have a website or even a MySpace (!) so there’s no way I can point you to a recording; Sam, get yourself a domain. You’ll have to do better than www.samadams.com, though.
NEWS FLASH/UPDATE: Sam actually does have a website.
Cordarounds, your friendly neighborhood pants purveyors, have released their spring lineup. I found a pair in the woods, (see above), and can attest to their pulchritude in person, as well as their legendary aerodynamics.
I was happy to see Alex Ross shout-out Prokofiev’s sixth symphony yesterday. I was obsessed with that piece when I was in high school, and like Alex, I’ve never heard it played live.
I kind of stopped listening to Prokofiev as much when I started college; this was a conscious decision on my part, because his music had been such a recognizable influence on me, and I wanted to diversify. How I wrote music in my early teens was like this: choose a piece by Prokofiev, steal the form, then just fill in my own music! Easy. I have an old piece that is the same as the first movement of his sixth piano sonata, pretty much down to the bar.
Back to op. 111. This piece totally undermines the simplistic idea of Prokofiev as the “happy Soviet”, the self-portrait he so obligingly paints in the fifth symphony. It out-Shostakoviches Dmitri. The first movement is a kind of slowed-down tarantella in e-flat minor, one of the darkest (and most difficult) keys. The middle movement is a sprawling militaristic mess that I can’t make head of tail of. And the last movement starts out as a sunny, jaunty rondo with more marching soldiers, but in the end, which Alex writes about— I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s wonderfully tragic and creepy. The last chord is a trademark Prokofiev cackle, but in this case it just makes you shudder.
I’ll write about the seventh symphony some other time. That piece is like the Russian great-grandmother I never knew.
Kind of a big week for website redesigns… at least among sites I frequent. Pitchfork’s was long-overdue— it hadn’t changed a bit since I started reading it as a freshman in college. The new website is clean, lovely and much richer (though admittedly the bar set by the old one was pretty low; it didn’t even have a working search function). However, the aesthetic cleanliness brings with it a much more corporate feeling (I’ll leave the implications for others to debate). I also think the grid structure feels overly complex; it’s hard to tell which information is most important at first glance, even though it’s all presented quite clearly.
Also, Facebook— I feel as though for all the attention it gets, nobody talks about why Facebook is such a fantastic platform, which is that they are totally obsessed with design. Like Apple, the Facebook designers aren’t afraid to make sweeping changes for the better, even if it means getting some bad press and vocal complaints (remember when they launched the news feeds?). The new page layout is an incremental change, but the grid feels more natural and organized now. The font size for wall posts went up a notch, making communications a bit easier to read and creating a nice hierarchy of information. And I like the new rounded corners on profile pictures (round rects are everywhere).
OK, back to part-making (new piece for the Yale Symphony. Working title: Bathtub Shrine.)
Heads up, ev’rybody— there’s rather a large icicle about to melt on you, meaning my Carnegie Hall debut must be coming up (Sunday, March 22). You can get tickets for as little as $10, so nobody has an excuse not to come.
I spent last Sunday in Flushing listening to the ACME quartet and NY Youth Symphony play Senior for the first time; with two weeks to go until Carnegie I think we’re in very good shape. The quartet already sounds fantastic— can’t say I’m surprised, what with such illustrious membership. The orchestra members need perhaps a little more time for the music to “settle”. Ryan took my advice and mercilessly cut back the string sections (which are otherwise HUGE) and the piece sounded appropriately buoyant and nimble, really like slightly beefed-up chamber music in some parts.
I’m really excited for what’s sure to be a memorable concert. The orchestra is also playing Carlos Chavez’s Sinfonia India (which is apparently about… Incas? Aztecs?) and Brahms 1, both of which I overheard in rehearsal and already sound quite persuasive.
This morning I immersed myself in early period John Adams, listening to the two versions of Shaker Loops back-to-back and watching an old documentary about Harmonium.
It’s funny to look back to the early 80’s and see what an institution Adams had already become. The filmmakers tried desperately to romanticize him and his music, and he seemed to handle it well, posing for the camera in picturesque situations, composing in his impeccable mountain cabin or gazing thoughtfully over the San Francisco bay. Pretty banal stuff, though Adams did have some interesting things to say, including his own handy definition of Minimalism: “A vast reiteration of smaller units to create a larger architecture”. He plays some licks from Nixon in China on his wonderful old clavinova to demonstrate this. It was also fun to see the 1980’s choristers struggle with Harmonium’s hemiola rhythms, which sound so staid now, precisely because Adams and others have reiterated those gestures to the point of cliché.
The piece itself, though, is still resoundingly successful. The epic crescendo/accelerando into “Wild Nights” must have sounded incredibly daring in 1982, and it still never fails to move me. Though it strikes me as a subversion of the poem, not to mention a manipulation of the audience, to emphasize the line “were I with thee” as much as Adams does by repeating it dal niente in the final section. It makes the ending sadder and more poignant, but is it true to the meaning of the text? I suppose that’s why so many composers set Emily Dickinson, because she can’t very well complain.
Though the original septet version used a quasi-aleatoric system of looped phrases and cues, Shaker Loops is always heard today in its later through-composed scoring. (I love looking at weird, unknown versions of familiar pieces, seeing how composers thought differently about their own music as it continued to evolve.) That said, in the way it sounds, the original version resembles the written-out version closely. The entire middle of the piece, including the entire second and most of the third movements, has no indeterminate notation whatsoever. It’s as if Adams started composing using the idea of loops, then as he became more involved with the music he was writing, abandoned the idea in favor of increased control. I suppose this was a learning experience for him, because he was progressing closer toward the type of music he has become known for. There are a few details that are lost with a massed string texture, however; for example, the trills in the second movement become more of a textural effect, whereas the solo strings articulate them as florid ornamental lines. Contrary to Adams’s own statements, I think the main advantage of the written-out version is not increased compositional control, but increased confidence on the players’ part, simply because the notation is more traditional. This results in tighter and more controlled performances, even without a conductor (but with plenty of head-banging).