|As the snow tumbles down none too gently outside my window and the wind howls and the air is full of the sound of cars over-revving their engines, trying desperately to get unstuck like Billy Pilgrim, I am happy to be safe, warm and in a comfortable room with a piano. Though I do wish the landlord would shovel the walk soon because I’m thinking of going out for a slice.
I mean I could do it myself but I’m a renter here and it’s not really my job. Plus I’m not totally sure where the shovel is and, anyway, I’m not sure I want that slice anymore. What I’d really like to do is become unstuck in time and listen to music the way I used to. At one time I actually had a stereo with actual speakers and it sounded great.
I would play Mahler and Shostakovich and Camper Van Beethoven at full volume and sit in the middle of the room and let it wash over me. I could probably do that here. I’m just a lowly renter after all, no one expects much of me. But I don’t have the actual gear. I don’t have a stereo anymore. Or a record player. I have a Sonos box and I have a computer with headphones.
And yes, headphones are nice but it’s not the same thing. In Montreal recently I went to the Leonard Cohen exhibit and my favorite part was a listening room where we all sat in bean bag chairs in a room with speakers everywhere. You could feel the music in your bones. It was wonderful.
I’ve become obsessed with the idea of recreating this room in a public space where people could gather and listen to music the way we used to before we foolishly threw away our stereos. I keep thinking of that sensation of music in my bones and how thrilling it was.
A public space where we could sit and listen to music together could be deeply therapeutic. In the Leonard Cohen room we couldn’t control what we listened to and I think that’s key. That last thing you want is people fighting over what to listen to or someone coming in and playing like nine Meatloaf songs in a row. Or even one for that matter. If there’s a musician anywhere in the world who can incite me to instant rage it’s Meatloaf. Although Garth Brooks is right behind him.
At any rate, the idea is less about the aesthetic and more about feeling the music vibrate in your body which used to be the only way we listened. The experience of listening to recorded music is sadly much degraded these days, what with earbuds, faulty connectivity and compression. Not to mention that people don’t just sit and listen to music anymore but maybe they would if it sounded better.
Of course I should probably just get a stereo and try it out here in my room and then work my way up to opening a public listening space with state of the art sound later. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll get started on it as soon as the landlord shovels the walk. And I might grab that slice after all.
Every year our building management pays for an exterminator to come out and every year I think I’m going to remember to opt out and I forget and so this morning as I lounged around in my pajamas I was awakened by two gentlemen from a company called, and you can’t make this up, Absolute Death. I was literally awakened this morning by death.
I was hoping they would act kind of like Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever, but they didn’t. They just acted like exterminators.
Remember these guys? They were the well-mannered, almost Victorian, gentlemen who were also vicious killers but who, like every Bond villain, had to express their murderous desires in elaborate, easily-foiled plots instead of something simple like a glue trap.
Why has no one ever thought to ensnare Bond in a giant glue trap? That would be hilarious. You could trick him into using a men’s room with a floor made of glue. It’s so simple!
At any rate Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are archetypes of the old evil duo trope. They show up as Croup and Vandemar in Neil Gaiman, as Big Boy and Junior in Haruki Murakami, the Duke and the King in Mark Twain and too many more to list.
They are well-mannered for the most part, often one is skinny and the other is fat, they address each other with exaggerated courtesy, they travel about effortlessly and often appear from nowhere, and they exist in a moral realm entirely their own. They can be hired or set to work toward a momentary purpose but for the most part they exist as a generalized destructive principle.
And they’re having their moment now. As I look back on the year that’s almost past I can’t help but think of it primarily as a year of destruction. Some of the things we’re destroying I’m sad to see go like democracy. But some of the things we’re destroying are way overdue like a male-dominated system that institutionally treats women as inferiors. I’m happy to see that go.
Anger is dominant at this moment, on all sides. We’re destroying indiscriminately and, down the road, will definitely miss some of the things we’ve destroyed. But thinking in terms of archetypes and cycles helps me process it. This is a time of destruction but, assuming we don’t all die in a nuclear war, it will give way to a time of building.
Destructive cycles in history are always followed by building cycles. It’s just that you usually have a couple hundred years of squalor in between. But, this being the speedy tech age and all, I’m optimistic we can get that down to a couple of decades.
I was awakened this morning by death but hopefully tomorrow I’ll be awakened by something more positive like an alarm clock or just a burning need to pee. Meaning, I suppose, that what I crave above all in the new year is normalcy. We’ll see how that goes…
Last Sunday was the five-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I think of her every day but especially at this time of year. I wish I could call her, tell her all the things that are happening to me, talk about the weather, talk about anything.
And I wish I could do some of the things that I promised her I’d do, like write a piece for her. She never really understood the contemporary classical music field but nonetheless she always wanted me to write her a piece and call it Song For My Mother. She bugged me about this for years but it was an impossible task.
First of all we had wildly different taste in music. Every time she came to a concert on which I had a piece she would say “why can’t you write something nice and tonal?” I would get furious and start sputtering like Napoleon Dynamite. It is tonal music mother!! My music is tonal! God! Then I would pull a tater tot out of my pocket and chew it petulantly.
Well, no. But seriously I never wrote the piece because I thought it would either have had to have been some kind of Billy Joel-esque “classical” piece complete with an Alberti bass line or else a quasi-romantic Nocturne or some other thing I didn’t feel well-equipped to write and also because, though it’s only all these years later that I’m realizing it, I just wasn’t emotionally up to it.
I remember trying to think of specific musical ideas and always feeling overwhelmed before I even started. Shortly after she died though I was asked to be part of a musical celebration for the 100th anniversary of Poetry Magazine. The composers would choose poems published in the magazine to set to music for a performance in their gorgeous center in Chicago.
Needless to say a hundred years of poetry is a lot to go through in search of one poem that moves you. I spent several days on their website reading and reading until I found a poem by Laura Kasischke called simply Game. I read it several times over and was stunned at how powerfully it conveyed what I was feeling.
Composing is often difficult for me but I set this poem very quickly, in just two days. Then for good measure I set two other poems by Kasischke, one about perspective and the other about a woman feeling strong after a breakup. But Game remains my favorite.
The piece was sung in performance by Alison Wahl with the Chicago Q Ensemble and they did a marvelous job. Unfortunately I doubt my mother would have liked it, at least musically. Though it’s tonal, solidly in Eb Major throughout, it’s nonetheless a complicated tonality, wistful and rhythmically restless. Not at all to her taste.
But then again, I’m not totally sure I knew her taste after all. Lately I’m haunted by the realization that I never really knew her, that it was in fact impossible to truly see her as an independent person while she lived. That’s the other thing that five years has brought, a sense of perspective. It occurs to me now that I could have written anything and she would have been happy but somehow I couldn’t do it until she was gone.
Almost every time someone says the word technology to me I think of Betty Scott. Dr. Scott was a trumpet professor at Mizzou when I was an undergraduate and I took a semester of lessons with her partly because Mizzou had the sensible policy of making composers take at least a semester of several different instruments to get some hands-on experience but partly because she was in many ways a legend.
For example my roommate even knew who she was and he wasn’t a music major or even musical. In fact, now that I think of it, he was perhaps the living embodiment of the opposite of music. Although he did pay his rent on time which makes up for a lot.
At any rate, it seemed like everyone on campus knew of Betty Scott because, in addition to being a great trumpeter who frequently left the concert hall to play in street bands, she was also preternaturally wise, absurdly well-learned and, it was said by many, even possessed of special powers.
Dr. Scott could tell you the etymology of any word and when, during one of our lessons I said that technique was less important than musicality, she yelled don’t underestimate the importance of technique. Technique comes from the word techne or τέχνη – (and yes she wrote the Greek word on the board because that’s just how she rolled.)
Techne is the root of technique but also of technology and according to Wikipedia it means “art, skill, craft, or the way, manner, or means by which a thing is gained.”
It’s a philosophical concept and in Dr. Scott’s view you couldn’t gain the thing you sought, mastery of an instrument for example, without the proper technique but technique wasn’t just practicing scales, it was a kind of spiritual road map that allowed you to progress, on your instrument but more importantly as a human being.
In order to progress in techne you have to know what thing it is that is being gained and this used to be true for technology. Thanks to Dr. Scott when I hear the word technology I think of techne but I’m no longer sure we know what we’re gaining from technology. Somewhere along the line we stopped driving it and it started driving us.
I’ve been interested in architecture for a long time, in terms of design and aesthetic but also in how the buildings that we make and live and work in affect our lives. I’m also interested in the intersection of music and architecture, how music sounds in a given space, how the design of the building affects the listener perception of the music and how the history of a building can inspire a composer’s piece.
It’s been a huge blessing then that for many years I’ve had the great fortune to add a musical component to projects celebrating architecture in Chicago, Milwaukee and Barcelona. Next weekend I’ll head to Milwaukee for Doors Open, a long-running annual event celebrating the city’s architectural and design legacy.
There is normally not a musical component to this project but a couple of years back they approached us about working with them and it’s been one of my favorite projects ever since. ACM commissions composers for three of the venues and then we work with musicians from the Milwaukee Symphony who will be in the buildings playing the music every fifteen minutes during the day.
I worked closely with Doors Open staff to choose sites that are inspiring, historical or an interesting part of the ongoing restructuring of the architectural legacy of Milwaukee’s manufacturing past.
Here’s a quick tour of the buildings we chose!
The Clock Shadow Building is one of the most sustainably built structures in the U.S.. The building got a lot of attention and awards for its design, sustainable technologies and, my personal favorite, for housing Wisconsin’s first urban cheese maker.
Hopefully urban cheese is better than urban wine of which I have never been a fan. At any rate, the Clock Shadow Building also has the first regenerative-energy elevator in the U.S., Milwaukee’s first commercial application of rainwater harvesting, and it was built with more than 50% recycled materials.
The composer for the Clock Shadow Building is Rob Laidlow.
The Colby-Abbot Building is a historical structure in the East Town neighborhood that was built in 1885 as the home office of the Wisconsin Central Railroad. Using white marble imported from Italy and featuring wide corridors and bay windows, this five-story structure is an indelible part of Milwaukee’s skyline.
Gustave E. Kahn, a world-renowned structural engineer purchased the building in 1926 and converted it to a multi-tenant building which today translates as a hip co-working space.
Incredibly the original facade has never been altered or damaged and appears today as it did in 1885. The music for the Colby-Abbot Building is by Cristina Spinei.
Two Fifty, named after its address, is essentially a shopping mall but I was intrigued by its recent history. A few years ago it was slated for tear-down, another of the many casualties of the manufacturing bust.
But incredibly it was purchased instead by a company called Fulcrum and Milbrook who then poured millions into a modern, sustainable design aesthetic and reopened it as a sleek shopping center focused exclusively on Milwaukee-based retailers.
The building also has some of Milwaukee’s best views of downtown. The music for Two Fifty is by Asta Hyvärinen.
Videos will posted to the ACM website very shortly afterward!
ACM’s first Chicago concert of the season is the musical culmination of a lifelong fascination with comparative religion, spirituality, and altered states of consciousness and I’m so excited about it.
We’ll perform music inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, sacred spaces in Australia, the Christian mystical tradition, a hallucinogenic mushroom trip and my piece The Numinous inspired by C.G. Jung’s concept of mythical archetypes.
I first got into Jung when I was still in high school. I was obsessively reading Joseph Campbell and he seemed to be obsessed with Jung and I thought, the obsession of my obsession must be worth obsessing about. And it was! I almost never think of anything now in less than mythic terms which, while it makes life interesting, does have a downside or two.
At any rate, this concert is happening in our new venue, the recently restored Davis Theater in Lincoln Square, a gorgeous movie theater with adjoining bar and restaurant. And, as if that weren’t enough, this concert also includes the first installment of our new Composer Alive collaboration with David Smooke.
David is writing a short piece in installments called Mechanical Birds and I’m very excited to hear the first couple minutes of it.
After I finished my piano concerto at the beginning of this year and it was performed in March I felt empty inside. It was one of the greatest creative events of my life and yet when it was done I just went into a kind of depression and didn’t want to write any more music.
I wish I could say that I felt that the concerto was the supreme expression of my art or some nonsense like that but it was more just like this incredible ennui like, I finished a great challenge and was pleased with it and all but really, did the challenge or the completing of the challenge really matter after all?
That’s a terrible frame of mind for a creative person to be in and it unfortunately lasted for several months, until just last week actually. I struggle a lot with finding meaning in the world. It seems to me that you can focus on the really big things, like the eventual death of the universe, or you can focus on really small things like what kind of salsa to buy for your blue corn chips.
I let myself get lost in the idea that it really doesn’t matter what kind of salsa you buy for your corn chips, or even if the chips are made of blue corn at all, considering that the entire universe will eventually implode. Nothing mundane matters in the face of this and everything is mundane. But it occurred to me last week that I’ve had this exactly backwards.
The truth is that if you find the right salsa for your corn chips then it really doesn’t matter that the universe will one day implode. A simple epiphany but it got me writing music again and I’m thankful for that. I’m writing small ensemble works but I think I know what my next big project will be too.
And I did find the right salsa for my blue corn chips and it’s so good.
For all of the magic of holding a classical music festival on the street, every year I think the most special part of it for me is Sunday night after we’ve torn down the tents and stage, moved everything back inside, after the vendors have left, after every chair is taken off the street and there’s this incredible moment when we remove the blockades and traffic starts up again and it’s as if the fest never happened.
I don’t know what it is about that that gets me but it’s an incredible feeling. I stand there muscles aching from my arduous labors over the weekend and look at the cars going by with drivers totally oblivious to the fact that just hours ago the street was full of people and music was ringing out. It’s like building your castle in the sand and taking great pride in it but also taking joy in watching the ocean wash it away.
That said I have many favorite moments of the actual festival itself including hearing Shostakovich’s e-minor trio performed while the sun was setting behind me, overhearing people rave about the music, watching the kids enjoying the WTTW Big Ideas Van performance and, not least, seeing this event that had existed in my head for so long come to life.
The smartest thing I did was hire Elliot Mandel to take photos. Looking at these is now my favorite part of the fest and reminds me that it did indeed happen and it was indeed awesome.
It’s a thoughtful list and I was excited to make the cut again this year and to move up from #44 to #34. Cue the Jefferson’s Theme No, wait, don’t.
Not because it’s a bad song but because it’s an ear worm and I don’t want to walk around the rest of the day with it stuck in my head.
At any rate, check out the Newcity Music 45 Who Keep Chicago In Tune!
I was fascinated by this character the first time I saw this woodcut, the Galactic Drifter by Sanya Glisic. I was tasked with setting several of Sanya’s works to music by Amos Gillespie for a project called Paintings Composed and they’ll be playing this one at the Thirsty Ears Festival in a couple of days.
As I stared at the woodcut I pictured him dancing around space, teleporting to different worlds using the chronometer on his wrist and generally getting into mischief wherever he goes. Based on his footwear he may also have a passion for dancing.
I wanted to bring this idea across with a bluesy pizzicato part in the cello but I’m not really a fan of traditional blues and I have this compulsion to make everything more complex than perhaps it needs to be so it’s a bluesy cello pizz part that incorporates multiple pitch sets. But don’t worry, it’s still fun.
Then there’s a section where the flute, clarinet and cello play syncopated rhythms together and the saxophone comes in out of sync with them. It’s my favorite part of the piece, although I like the lonely sax solo too. Because of the sax solo and his aloofness in the syncopated part, the musicians thought that Amos was the Galactic Drifter but I promise I was thinking of no such thing.
Here’s the great recording from the original project some years back. Best to listen to it while staring intently at the woodcut.
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Pas de Deux with Dancers
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Late Night at National Sawdust: Stucky Portrait is October 20
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‘The Numinous’ to be Performed September 12
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August Relevant Tones Episodes
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Last Few Grant Park Talks for August
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