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March 1, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen Shot 2017-03-05 at 4.56.19 PMIt was a gorgeous day in Helsinki in August of 2014 and I was sitting outdoors at a pub drinking a ludicrously expensive bottle of beer and thinking about what kind of music I wanted to write next.

In the past I had always let the music I wrote be dictated by commissions or projects and I would typically finish one and move right on to the next, but this time I wanted to do something different. I wanted to write something that wasn’t inspired by a story or visual art or anything external. I wanted to write something personal in my own artistic language that would challenge me creatively and take me to the next level as a composer.

I was convinced that all of this breathless careening from project to project was not allowing me time to think about what it was I wanted to say as an artist, that I was too busy meeting deadlines to do the really hard self-examining that an artist must do if he expects to ever say anything of value.

Somewhere in the middle of my second beer I decided that the perfect thing for me to do was write a piano concerto. I could tell that it was the perfect thing to do because I immediately got very nervous.  My heart fluttered and I felt shaky, which for me is always a clear sign that I’m on the right path, or that I need a third beer.

I got to work on the piece right away but as it turns out nearly everything I wrote in Helsinki was garbage and the only thing I kept was the opening figure in the piano, a kind of menacing, rhythmic figuration that you’d typically hear in a movie when things are about to go really bad for someone. (Don’t worry though, it all works out in the end.)

I didn’t find the real inspiration for the piece until a few months later in a conversation about art with friends. I was talking about my obsession with writing in my own language with as few outside influences as possible.  Meanwhile I had sketched another movement that was meant to sound like it was me improvising at the piano and one of my friends said the piece was a self portrait. I liked that idea and ran with it.

I called the piece Satori which is this wonderful Japanese Buddhist term that can mean self-knowledge, the search for self-knowledge or one who has attained self-knowledge. The finished work is in four movements and it’s getting performed for the first time next week by the Chicago Composers Orchestra with the wonderful Marta Aznavoorian as soloist.

They are sounding amazing and it’s just stunning for me to hear this piece brought to life after having existed for so long solely in my head.  It truly is like an out of body experience. Or at least, not having had an out of body experience that I know of, what I would think an out of body experience would feel like.  You know, like surreal and floaty.

Anyway, here are the details in case you can make it.   I’ll post videos too shortly after the performance.

February 5, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen Shot 2017-03-05 at 4.54.18 PMIt’s terrible when a normal dream turns into an anxiety dream.  At first everything is perfect. You’re sailing on a yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea surrounded by friends, Yanni is serenading you, the wine sparkles like the sea, the bust of Homer on the prow of the boat nods his head in gentle approval, everything is dandy.

But then it all goes bad.  The sun starts crying, the boat somehow hits an iceberg, your elementary school bully speeds by on a sea-doo and throws lunch meat at you, Homer won’t stop singing Frere Jacques in a creepy stage whisper.  Everything just goes south.

I’ve been having more than my fair share of anxiety dreams lately but, perhaps strangely, not so much about politics, although I did have a dream where I woke up and was in bed with Betsy DeVos and I never want to have that dream again.  Never.

No, most of my anxiety dreams lately have been about the premiere of my piano concerto coming up on March 9.  I’ve had dreams that the orchestra members turn into clowns and start mocking me, that the audience consists entirely of barnyard animals who, while well-mannered, don’t seem to have an ear for music and then, just last night, I dreamed that the orchestra wouldn’t stop playing Happy Birthday. I yelled and yelled at them to stop and get on with my piece but they never did.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very excited about this premiere.  This is just how I get.  I’m a high-strung person and for me, having a piece played publicly creates a response in my body that is something like the fight-or-flight instinct but, like all of the fight-or-flight any humanoid creature on earth has ever experienced happening to me all at once.  Plus butterflies.

So, yes, I’m always nervous before a big premiere but this one makes me especially nervous because this piece is a kind of musical self portrait.  You know like visual artists do but with music instead of paint.

The piece is in four movements and each movement reflects a different aspect of myself, both the self I’d like to be and the self I’m stuck with. The title Satori is a Japanese Buddhist term for seeking self knowledge.

The pianist is Marta Aznavoorian which is just amazing.  I’m so happy.  And nervous.  I hope that you can come.

Thursday, March 9
7:30 pm
Ganz Hall @ Roosevelt University
430 S Michigan Ave, 7th Floor, Chicago

January 3, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

The Casa Mas de Miquel in Barcelona is a striking building on the Avinguda Diagonal in the heart of the city.  Designed by Domènec Sugrañes i Gras, one of Gaudí’s protegés and the man entrusted with finishing the Sagrada Familia after Gaudí’s death, the building combines Gaudí’s modernist style of windows with classicist pillars and features a stunning tiered oval courtyard capped with an ornate, highly decorated cupola.

I first saw the building in a brochure in July when I visited the Open House Barcelona office to talk about a musical collaboration and, even looking at it in a black and white photograph, I knew that if they agreed to the project, this was the building I wanted to write music for.

As it happened they agreed and I wrote a piece for violin and cello to be performed in the courtyard on the day of the event, October 23rd, a day which I consider to be the highlight of my artistic life thus far.

fae941a2-a5f9-4117-8705-a9082fa28141The building had recently been converted to private residencies and a lot of people wanted to get a look inside it so the line went all the way down the block and around the corner.  The managers allowed 140 people to come in at a time.  The Open House volunteer told them about the architecture and then introduced me and I talked about the project and my music and then the musicians performed the piece.

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When it was over everyone hung out for a bit taking in the space and then they were ushered out and another 140 people were ushered in and we started it all over again.  In all well over a thousand people heard my music that day and the responses were wonderful.

I was really moved by the concentration that the audience gave the performance and by the conversations I had. I remember thanking a woman for coming and she said to me, “no, es un regalo” or “no, it’s a gift.”

The day was magical for me because not only was my music being performed in an incredible space for oodles of appreciative people but also because it was happening in Barcelona, a place for which I’ve long had a fascination.

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After the final performance the musicians and I had lunch in a nearby cafe with the videographer and a few others.  We talked in a mixture of Spanish, Catalan, English and German and I felt like I was in heaven.

I spent nearly three months of 2016 in five different European countries and, there as well as in the U.S., I heard the same thing.  Close the borders, expel the foreigners, bring back outsourced jobs, preserve our cultural heritage. I don’t know where it’s all heading but I do know that travel, language study and international projects have enriched my life incredibly and opened me to all kinds of different ways of seeing the world.

The new year is a time of hope and I have a very sincere hope that we won’t let fear get the better of us this year and in the years to come.  I like cultural diversity and I like the idea of a global village in which we recognize the humanity in others and I hope we get there.  In the meantime I’ll always have that magical day in Barcelona.

Open House Barcelona 2016 – Casa Mas de Miquel from ACM on Vimeo.

December 2, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

The story of Cain and Abel is usually interpreted as being about envy.  Cain was a farmer and Abel a shepherd and when they made offerings to God, well, God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s and so, the rules on this sort of thing being as yet a bit unclear, Cain killed him for it.

But for me, a more interesting read of the story is that it is actually a myth inspired by the agricultural revolution.  Cain the farmer represents mankind’s increasing use of, and dependence on, agriculture and Abel represents the former nomadic way of life which did not adapt to the change.  The agricultural revolution led to the founding of cities and ultimately civilization as we know it.

Though there were nomadic invasions of cities throughout history and the nomadic way of life persists even today in some isolated areas, it can pretty safely be said that Cain killed Abel, that the agricultural revolution was here to stay.

We’re pretty clearly in the midst of a revolution at the moment that I believe will have a similarly huge impact on human history. There is the shift away from industry and manufacturing toward technology, there is the trend toward globalization and there are massive social upheavals as frequently marginalized people increasingly, and rightly, demand to be treated as human beings.

In this context, it’s not surprising that there is a kind of hysteria gripping much of the world at the moment and of course a whole lot of people have been left behind. The changes are happening fast, a whole lot faster than the agricultural or industrial revolutions happened and it’s scary for all of us, though especially for those who were highly adapted to the industrial/nuclear family model and are having a hard time adapting to the new technological/diversity spectrum model.

I believe that the next few years will be intensely painful as many people struggle mightily to reverse the tide.  But it can’t be done.  Cain has killed Abel and there’s no way back.

November 2, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Tonight, as many of you already know, is game seven of the world series.  It’s a big deal for Chicago because if the Cubs win tonight not only will they have broken a drought of 108 years but they will also be the last of the three “cursed” teams in baseball to break their curse, and the win will be definitive proof that Theo Epstein is a magic man who can do anything and should immediately replace Rahm Emanuel as mayor.

I have to admit, though, that my feelings about the Cubs over the years have been mixed.  When I moved to Chicago in 1995 I played piano at the Annoyance theater which at that time was on Clark street just north of Wrigley Field and to those of us in the theater community the Cubs games were simultaneously a source of irritation and excitement.  As there was little to no expectation of winning in those days, home games often brought an ugly streak of drunkenness that once seen is difficult to forget.

At the same time I can remember being at the Gingerman Tavern when Kerry Wood had his famous 20 strikeout game.  There were guys watching the game who realized that this first year rookie was going to tie a record and quickly settled their tabs and ran to the stadium to buy last minute tickets to watch it in person. You could do that back then.  Despite the excitement though, I stayed behind and worked on my patternless crossword puzzle.

Speaking of the Gingerman, it was my favorite bar at that time not only because it was across the street from the Annoyance which was then the center of my social world, but also because they played classical music after every Cubs home game, a move taken less from an enthusiasm for classical music and more as a way of keeping drunken mayhem to a minimum.  And it worked.

Drunks in Mark Grace jerseys would crash into the bar, hear the music, noisily disapprove and storm back out.  Meanwhile we in the bar would raise our glass of port and return to our patrician pursuits, which at the Gingerman in the ’90’s were myriad.   There were always chess and scrabble games happening and a wildly popular backgammon tournament on Sundays.  There were lively political disputes, poets scribbling away in corners and of course the ubiquitous theater people, some of whom now write for SNL and Conan O’Brien and one of whom, Matt Walsh, plays the press secretary on Veep.

The Gingerman was also one of the very best bars in the city for high caliber billiards, so much so that a scene from the Color of Money was shot there, and two of the bartenders were big music heads: Joel Leoschky started Cranky Records and Harrison Bankhead is still a well-known bassist on the free jazz scene, though he has long since quit bartending, much to the chagrin of those of us who fondly remember his skills.   All of this and classical music playing after Cubs home games?   Yes, please.

Living near Wrigley Field you always had a Cubs schedule in your car so you’d know on which days to avoid Clark street like the plague.  I always claimed to hate Cubs games and the attendant traffic jams, but I was also sympathetic to the team’s plight and would pay close attention in the years when it seemed they had a shot.  A friend of mine once jokingly asked me if I had ever listened to a Cubs game on my car radio and rooted for them while simultaneously cursing the extra traffic the game had caused.  The answer is yes and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I’m not a person who defines himself by loyalty to a sports team, not by a long shot. That said, tonight’s game will be epic and I’m looking forward to watching it. interestingly enough though, it won’t be the only epic in my day.  I’m in Dublin at the moment for an opera called Heresy by Roger Doyle about Giovanni Bruno, a medieval free thinker who was tortured and eventually killed for his beliefs.

So I’ll head straight from a three hour opera to the hotel bar to watch a three hour baseball game in which it would be nothing less than heresy not to root for the Cubs.  Things didn’t turn out so well for Bruno.  Here’s hoping they go a heck of a lot better for the Cubs.

September 13, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Walter Mass_house

For three years a young man by the name of Walter Maas was hidden in the eaves of this house in Biltholm, Holland by a brave family during World War II.  Maas, who was twenty-three when he went into hiding, was a Jewish refugee from Germany lucky enough to have family friends willing to safeguard him.

After the war was over and he was able to come out of hiding he, overcome with gratitude to the family and the Dutch people generally, started the Gaudeamus Festival in the same house to promote the music of young Dutch composers.  Today, nearly seventy-five years later the Gaudeamus Festival is going strong and has expanded into an international powerhouse.

It’s an inspiring story and I think especially poignant for the Americans who are here. We are one of the few countries on the planet never to have experienced a foreign invasion. For us the world wars are remote affairs seen on television or quickly brought to heel by John Wayne but, in Europe, even today, the reminders are everywhere.

As the Dutch scholar Erasmus has said, “war is delightful to those who have had no experience of it.”  Well maybe delightful is a bit of a strong word in this case but, as the U.S. and other countries continue to beat the nationalistic drum, it makes me nervous.  Nationalism is the first step toward identifying the “other” which is a slippery slope of mistrust that leads to misunderstandings, dehumanization and ultimately to war.

I was so moved by the story of Gaudeamus’ beginning.  Imagine if that family had not had the courage to take in Maas?  We would have lost an international music festival of great renown but, more importantly, we would have lost a human life.  Kudos to that family for recognizing a fellow human and for having the bravery and compassion to do the right thing.

Gaudeamus is Latin for “let’s be merry.”  It’s amazing to me that, after a three-year ordeal of constant fear and privation, Maas not only had the energy to start a festival but also gave it such an optimistic name.  Let’s be merry indeed, and recognize the humanity in all of us.

 

 

 

September 2, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen Shot 2016-09-15 at 5.49.33 AMTen years ago I was in a hell of my own making. I was in the middle of Eastern Expressions, ACM’s first large-scale project and I was in so far over my head it wasn’t funny. I had the idea to commission a composer in a different country from us and ask him to write a piece and email it to us in short installments as he composed it. We’d meet and read and record each installment and post it to our website for him. When the project was finished we’d bring him to Chicago and give the world premiere performance. It was, as they say, a simple plan.

I chose a wonderful composer in China named Xiaogang Ye and he agreed to this unorthodox style of working and we were off. As it turned out we were starting this project just as Yo-Yo Ma was announcing a huge initiative called Silkroad Chicago and we were able to become part of that larger project. Then I asked my filmmaker colleague Dave Less to film the rehearsals for what I thought would be just website posts.

But then Dave and I got a wonderful interview with Henry Fogel, the former head of the Chicago Symphony and he went on a diatribe about how classical music had created most of its own problems. It was killer stuff and we decided we had a documentary film on our hands. Then I managed to talk Boeing into funding us and they vouched for us with United and before I knew it Dave and I were filming in Beijing.

You can see where this is going. The project kept scaling upward until it was practically out of control. Every bit seemed manageable on its own but I was too inexperienced to see how, in the aggregate, it was a disaster waiting to happen. By the time of the final concert on September 10, 2006 (a date etched into my mind) I was wildly overcommitted and we were thousands of dollars over budget.

I managed to raise the money and solve the logistics challenges (I had to break down and call my mom who rented a van and helped me pick up our musical guests flying in to two airports from six different cities) and we got through it but in many ways it was a harrowing experience.

Looking back now I realize that I put myself through that at the time partly because I was inexperienced and didn’t know better but mostly because I was impatient. I wanted ACM to be a large organization RIGHT NOW and thought this project was a kind of magic bullet that would make that happen.

And the project was a huge success but what I didn’t know then was that you have to have the infrastructure to handle big projects. There are no magic bullets and, as I’m sure most arts leaders will agree, calling your mom is not a sustainable option.

By the way, if you’re curious to see that interview with Henry, it’s here.

July 8, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

bill-cunningham 

I had never heard of New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham until I watched a documentary about him the day after he died but he’s been living in my head ever since. I’m fascinated by his life because, at least on the surface, it was about as simple a lifestyle as it’s possible for anyone to have.

He was never in a relationship and in fact had no human entanglements of any kind.  He lived for much of his career in a tiny apartment in Carnegie Hall, tore up most of his paychecks to avoid being “owned,” ate every meal in the same restaurants and spent every day doing what he loved: biking through Manhattan photographing fashions that caught his eye. He truly was a kind of urban twentieth-century monk who just happened to have a great eye for women’s hats.

This is not the life that I would want to live and the film certainly hints at darker waters beneath the surface but I do understand the appeal of a life lived virtually without complications where each day has a ritualistic comforting sameness and I do believe that, for the most part, he spent the vast majority of his life in contentment and even happiness.

I’m not the only one in awe of the idea of the simple life simply led. The idea is in vogue now around the world but there’s a dark edge to it. This is no monastic life being dreamt of, but a life in which society conforms to a homogeneous ideal.  And when this fails, as it always does, they respond through acts of violence, isolationism and the conjuring of imaginary bogeymen who haunt public restrooms.

But there’s no going back.  Isolate yourselves into any kind of homogeneous group and it’s only a matter of time before someone comes out as different.  It’s a fundamental part of being human.  Although for that matter,  unfortunately, so is fearing that which is different. But diversity is inevitable and it’s time people got used to it.

The great thing about Cunningham is that he lived a simple life personally but in his work he sought out and celebrated diversity. If his legacy teaches us anything, it’s that the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

June 24, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

51neDs+Bf5L._AC_UL320_SR214,320_October of this year marks the hundredth anniversary of the printing of Carl Sandburg’s collection Chicago Poems and ACM is working with mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley and five composers, myself included, to set several of the poems for voice and piano trio for a performance at the Chicago Cultural Center as part of the Ear Taxi festival.

I hadn’t read the poems in some time and have greatly enjoyed reading through them again. Many of the poems are quite clear in their meaning and employ a workmanlike, rough-hewn structure.  And others leave you thinking about them long after multiple readings.  Such a poem is the poem I chose to set for this project: Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard.

Before writing a note of music I tried to analyze the poem as best as I could.  Here is Sandburg’s beautiful short poem and my analysis is below.

NOCTURNE IN A DESERTED BRICKYARD
STUFF of the moon
Runs on the lapping sand
Out to the longest shadows.
Under the curving willows,
And round the creep of the wave line,
Fluxions of yellow and dusk on the waters
Make a wide dreaming pansy of an old pond in the night.

 

Why stuff of the moon?  Not light of the moon?  Or some poetic word for light?  It’s as if he’s saying that the moon’s contribution to the scene is somehow more than merely light. Stuff of the moon.  The moon is investing in the scene, the stuff of the moon like the stuff of life, or the stuff of legend.  It’s moonstuff, not light.  All things attributed to moon: light, energy, femininity, etc.  He’s setting the stage with an odd word but there is power here too.

Runs on the lapping sands.  The sands don’t lap of course, the water laps the sand or so we would think.  But because of the stuff of the moon perhaps it is confused what is lapping what. Also, perhaps it’s not a bright moonlit night, again stuff does not necessarily evoke light, but could also be the moon’s power to obscure or to subtly alter our perception of a scene.

Out to the longest shadows.  The stuff of the moon runs on the lapping sands out to the longest shadows.  What an odd sentence. Now we have the “stuff” of the moon running presumably at a tilt from above on the lapping sands.  The sands seem to be moving, to be lapping, which is an effect of the moonlight.  So the stuff is the moonlight. But again I feel there is more to it.

The stuff of the moon runs on the lapping sands but it stops at the longest shadows. The stuff of the moon cannot penetrate the longest shadows.  Or does it create the shadows?  Doesn’t moonlight create shadows?

Under the curving willows and round the creep of the wave line, fluxions of yellow and dusk on the waters make a wide dreaming pansy of an old pond in the night.

I believe we’re following the moonlight-created shadows first and then we go round the creep of the wave line which is confusing because the pond would presumably be still.  Is he talking about waves of light?  Did they know back then that light was waves and particles?  At any rate, we follow the moonlight, the stuff of the moon carrying with it its power to alter perception, to the sands and out to the shadows, or defining the longest shadows as we light up everything else, and then under the willows, round the creep of the wave line.  Here I think it’s just poetic language evoking waves, of light, of water, etc.  Fluxions is a mathematical science-y term. It appears that mister Sandburg knew his physics a bit.

Yellow and dusk flux together the way waves do in particle physics and they make the old pond appear to be a pansy, a kind of flower.

Overall it’s an evocation of a lonely scene. There are no humans here, including I believe the narrator who is not a witness.  This poem is an evocation of a scene without a first person narrator.  And yet, that can’t be true because reality is altered by the stuff of the moon, or by the waves, fluxions, etc.  But perhaps this is the tree that falls in the forest.

At any rate for coherence’s sake let’s go with the idea of this as an evocation of a lonely, nighttime scene. There is wonder here, mystical but also a new mystical, the mystics of modern science and physics in which nothing is as it seems.

Also this is a brickyard but a deserted brickyard.  Is it deserted because it’s late at night or is it no longer in use?  Is the brickyard itself a metaphor for loneliness, for lost purpose?

At one time the brickyard was a bustling scene, provided jobs and was emblematic of the rise of a great city.  now, in its desertion, either temporary or otherwise, there is a sense of loss, of nature reasserting itself without humanity.  Chicago is a great city and the work of ambitious men and Sandburg aims to praise that but, he also sees that it is temporary, without purpose aside from that which we humans give it and the works of man appear odd, shiftless

I believe the title is significant too.  It’s a nocturne in a deserted brickyard.  Not nocturne for or of a brickyard.  There’s something to that.  This isn’t a song for the brickyard or even a song of the brickyard.  It’s a song in the brickyard like the waves represent not only light but sound as well. The path the moonstuff takes creates the shadows, alters the pond and is a kind of ghostly song of loneliness.

 

 

May 27, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

NMUSA683Ten years ago this month was the first time I flew to New York to attend the awards for new music held by the American Music Center, as it was then called.  I had a great time and from then on it became a ritual for me each year.

New Music USA was the first organization to write about ACM’s Weekly Readings project way back in 2004. They thought it was good for composers and so they spotlighted it, and that’s the simple litmus test that they’ve used since the beginning: is it good for composers?

Since that first event I’ve sat in on many meetings and have always been blown away by the integrity, dedication and selflessness of the staff.  Which is especially laudable as it’s mostly a group of folks who are composers themselves.

We composers can be very selfish.  We spend so much time trying to get our music out there that we don’t often realize we’re only one of tens of thousands of composers in the same boat.  The truth is that no one organization can effectively convince classical music institutions to embrace contemporary music, find funders, guarantee commissions and match composers with professional level ensembles skilled in concert production and promotion. There’s just too many of us. But therein should lie our strength.

I get a number of emails every year from composers complaining that ACM hasn’t done enough for them.  My question for them is, what have you done to help another composer lately?  Because if each of us did something to help someone other than ourselves we would all be helped.  This would be so much more effective and beautiful than ten thousand plus composers with an every man for himself attitude.

New Music USA is a wonderful organization but it’s only the beginning.  We need to create a buddy system or, filtered through a Hitchcock-esque lens, we need to swap murders except instead of murders it’ll be advocacy.  Seriously though, many of us have a hard time with self promotion. What if instead we promoted each other?

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