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September 29, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead









I recently watched two excellent documentaries, Jodorowsky’s Dune and Woody Allen: A Documentary, within a week of each other and it really got me thinking about the contrasts between these two personalities, not only artistically but also in their working styles.  There’s an interesting polarity in their approach to creating art.

Jodorowsky is obsessive, consumed with the idea of making the perfect movie version of Dune.  He’s so obsessed that he absolutely won’t settle for anything less than perfection. He forces his son to train with a sword intensively for two years for the role of Paul Atreides, insists on working only with major artists like Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Pink Floyd and Mick Jagger, his production budget balloons out of control and ultimately the project is given to another director and the movie is never made.

Woody Allen, on the other hand, gets up every day and writes a screenplay and, when that’s finished, he directs the movie and has made a movie a year for most of his long life.  He doesn’t do the casting himself, he seldom gives direction to the cast, he often only does one take of each scene and he’s the first to admit that he doesn’t worry overly much about quality. If the film is good that’s great, if not then it’s on to the next one.

There’s something very attractive to me in both qualities.  Of course I love the Jodorowsky level of obsession, the manic gleam in the eye and the strict refusal to compromise your artistic vision, but I also like Woody Allen’s workmanlike approach to creating art. There’s something amazing, and very freeing, in the idea of getting up each day and creating art and letting others decide if it’s any good or not.

Jodorowsky embodies the old school idea of the crazy, passionate artist so it’s somewhat ironic that his masterpiece was never finished.  And of course if it had been finished it could never have lived up to the vision he had for it.  The breathtakingly audacious vision he had for this is the art, the reality could only have been a letdown.

Woody Allen, on the other hand, isn’t afraid of the inevitable letdown of making a vision real, creating a material copy of the perfect vision in the artist’s mind.  This idea of bringing an artistic vision into the world fascinates me because it can only suffer by being made concrete, you lose so much in the translation from mind to reality, but at the same time that’s what being an artist is.  Everyone has great creative power, few go through the tortuous process of trying to express that creativity in the form of art communicable to others.

Jodorowsky’s reach well exceeded his grasp and his great film was never made, but the story of his vision is incredibly inspiring.  There’s very little inspiration in the vision of Woody Allen but his best films are wonderfully moving.  Does it matter if that happened accidentally?  Does it matter that there are three times as many bad Woody Allen films as good ones?  It’s an interesting contrast.

September 15, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead


I just returned from the PRPD conference of radio program directors in Portland, OR and still have a bad taste in my mouth from the one classical music seminar I attended.  A coalition of influential program directors, led by American Public Media, hired outside consultants to do research among classical music listeners and other radio listeners to find out what we can do to retain listeners and attract new ones.

The survey appears to have been conducted in an entirely rational way and the conclusions that were drawn from the survey were equally rational but I personally found the results to be distasteful in the extreme and even chilling.

Most people surveyed said that classical music relaxed them which I don’t have a problem with. I also find some classical music relaxing and certainly classical music radio, lacking the amped up, aging frat boy energy of a classic rock station, is much more relaxing than most places on the radio dial. But when you draw the inevitable conclusion from this, as they did, that classical music radio stations should aggressively market themselves as playing music for relaxation, well I find that highly disturbing.

It’s disturbing to me for several reasons:

1) Art should not have to justify its existence.  I don’t like defending the existence of art, and arts organizations, in terms of jobs created, happiness produced, young brains made smarter, etc.  Humans will always make art and that’s the only justification that’s needed, creating and appreciating art is part of our DNA.

2) You don’t see other art forms marketing themselves as a tool for relaxation despite the fact that people probably do find them relaxing.  I’m one of I’m sure many people who finds it very relaxing to go to the museum but can you imagine the Metropolitan Museum of Art marketing themselves as a place to come to solely to relax?  No, because that would be a disservice to the art and to the artists who created it.

3) I understand that most classical music stations are on primarily in doctor’s offices and all kinds of bland waiting rooms across the country and that’s fine and we should cater somewhat to that listener.  But marketing ourselves specifically as music to relax, background music for a waiting room or elevator, well that’s just perpetuating a very hurtful stereotype about classical music in my view.  If people relax to the music that’s great but we simply cannot go around telling them that the main benefit classical music has given to society is relaxation.

4) I know that program directors have an uphill battle attracting listeners to classical music but I also believe that the obsession with ratings is a very bad thing.  Now we hear from these consultants that we should market classical music as relaxation and the idea is that we don’t change our playlists, we simply talk about them differently but it’s a slippery slope.  How long until PD’s are second guessing the listener and only playing music they think the listener will find relaxing?  I believe that this idea is death to innovation which in turn is death to, well pretty much anything.  If an organization doesn’t innovate it dies.

5) We have a responsibility to hundreds of years of composers who gave their lives to the pursuit of their art.  If we aren’t going to honor that and are going to instead mindlessly pursue ratings, then just turn the station into a traffic and weather station, that’s where the ratings are.  If you can’t uphold standards and be respectful to some of the greatest music humans have every produced then please get out of the business because you’re doing more harm than good and people would be better off discovering the music on Spotify.


September 12, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

PRPD_2014- Final


I’m in Portland, Oregon for a conference of NPR program directors and just got back from a talk called Midday Matters that was so depressing I had to go back to my hotel room and take a nap.  The gist of the seminar was that NPR stations should only air talk, that ratings are the most important thing and that if you have a successful show you should repeat it as often as you can until it adversely affects ratings.

Oh and music is bad because it drives ratings down and the worst thing in the world is midday.  Apparently all NPR stations experience drastic slumps in their ratings between noon and four PM and it is the topic of much hand wringing and decidedly non-existential angst.  The solution, as it turns out, is to repeat your morning news programs because those are popular and maybe there are some people who didn’t hear them or maybe the people who did won’t mind hearing them again.

These guys are so out of touch I wondered if they even listen to the radio themselves anymore.  I listen to the radio every day and will frequently tune in to NPR for local news in the morning and world news in the afternoon but, like so many others I’m sure, I can’t listen to people talking all day and so I generally head over to a music station for most of the day.

I’ll never understand why music is anathema to NPR stations.  Why can’t they intersperse an hour of music in between the talk shows?  That would be so much more interesting than a continuous news cycle in which the hosts clearly have nothing new to say, or there are no updates.

The other thing that really frustrates me about this is that, if there were ever a radio format that could get away with playing all genres of music, following a Mozart symphony with a Hank William Sr. tune and then heading over to a John Coltrane before going into a Kronos Quartet album, it’s the NPR format.  What a waste!  It would be so wonderful if they would play music from all eras and in all styles in between their talk shows.

To which they would calmly reply, we would do that but our studies show that it would drive ratings down.

And that could be true hell, your ratings are already down.  Instead of getting together and sharing the same old “wisdom,” why not try something new, radically bold and artistically bold?  As the immortal Neil Young said: It’s better to burn out than to fade away.

September 1, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

elks2I’m a big believer in putting musicians in public spaces in order to bring contemporary music to wider audiences.  As someone who has been producing contemporary music concerts for over ten years now I’ve found this a highly effective way to reach new people and have fascinating conversations about contemporary classical music and what the art form has been up to for the last hundred years, which is usually news to most of the people I talk to.

Next month my company Access Contemporary Music will be presenting music in public spaces for two great events: Open House Chicago and the Ravenswood Art Walk.  We’ve worked with the Chicago Architecture Foundation to provide a musical component to Open House Chicago since its inception four years ago.

Our composer members write music inspired by several of the venues in Open House and then we have musicians present the days of the event to perform the music every 15 minute or so as hundreds of people come through.  Over the years we’ve also amassed a great collection of videos of these events and, as we get closer to Open House on October 18 and 19, I’ll post several of these.

The Ravenswood Art Walk is a unique event.  Sure it’s a street festival and Chicago is lousy with street festivals but this one really is about the art and that’s what has always drawn me to it.  This year we’re working with percussionist and producer Peter Ferry and Julius Meinl to have a “music walk” component that includes musicians in several of the venues playing, you guessed it, contemporary classical music.

Between the  two events we’ll have musicians performing in nearly ten different public venues over two weekends.  It’s my favorite time of the year and I’m excited to talk about contemporary music with so many new people. Videos to come very soon!

August 19, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead


The interview I’m the most proud of was Einojuhani Rautavaara who is a legendary composer well into his 80’s who was mentored early in his career by Jean Sibelius.  He had an incredible presence and, although he has a hard time talking now after a stroke a few years back, he talked engagingly about his music and philosophy of life and I felt a very strong connection with him. That my producer Jesse McQuarters and me with him after the interview which took place in his home near the sea on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon.

My favorite interview quote from any of the composers we’ve talked to so far came from Matthew Whithall, a Canadian transplant who has been in Finland now for several years.  He was talking about how contemporary music is well integrated into normal classical music concerts here and he said “the first time I realized I was in a different place was when an orchestra played a piece by Magnus Lindberg that was essentially a 30 minute sonic assault and the audience leapt to their feet when it was done and gave a standing ovation. And Finns never give standing ovations.”

I was incredibly lucky last night to be able to attend the closed dress rehearsal of Shostakovich’s recently discovered, unfinished comic opera Orango being done by the Finnish Radio Symphony with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting.  As if that weren’t enough they gave a hair-raising performance of the 4th symphony afterward.  A perfect pairing in my opinion.  An opera lampooning the Soviet system on the same program as the infamous symphony that got Shostakovich in trouble with Stalin and was the beginning of so many of his woes.

There have been so many magical moments here, I’ll try to write more soon.


August 12, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead


This is a photo of approximately 2,000 professional singers from choirs throughout Helsinki giving a short concert on the front steps of the most famous cathedral in the city for the opening of Art Goes Kapakka, an event featuring live music and art of all kinds in bars and restaurants throughout the city every day for the next week or so.

I’ve been in Helsinki now for close to a week and it’s been an amazing journey.  I’m here in my capacity as host of Relevant Tones to interview Finnish composers for two shows about the music scene and the Finnish commitment to music and to a lesser extent the arts in general.

So far I’ve been completely blown away by everything.  The city is the perfect size, it’s very easy to get around, there are happy people everywhere, I haven’t seen one homeless person though I know they must exist somewhere, there is a ton of live music and a palpable commitment to the arts and everything is extremely well ordered and government corruption doesn’t seem to exist which for a guy from Chicago is pretty much the same thing as if everyone walked on water.

So far for Art Goes Kappaka I’ve seen choirs in several bars, two musicians improvising while a comic artist drew comics live that were projected on the wall, a great folk band and an acid jazz trio that I would kill to see again.  And there’s still so much left!  Once this is over the Helsinki Festival begins.  I may never go home…


August 5, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead


My wife and I were playing cards, drinking wine and listening to Pandora the other night and it seemed that, no matter what band names or styles of music we put in, after a certain amount of time we’d hear a Tom Petty song.  It never seemed out of place either, he fits easily into nearly any playlist.

It occurred to me that if a musical playlist is like a blood transfusion, and of course it is, then Tom Petty is the universal donor.  He can donate music to any playlist without ever causing a massive activation of the immune system thereby leading to shock, kidney failure, circulatory collapse and death.

So next time you’re making your next office party playlist and no one has anything in common remember the musical universal donor and you’ll be just fine.


July 20, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

ThirstyEarFestival_WFMT_7.12.14_by_ElliotMandel-27Yesterday was my third annual Thirsty Ear Festival and the second year that we’ve been at City Winery and what fun it was.  First up was the Fonema Consort in a program of music that, while not all of it may have been broadcast suitable, was certainly ear opening.  Fonema is interested in music that explores text in new and often frighteningly original ways and that aesthetic was on full display yesterday.  My favorite piece from their set was by Chris Fisher-Lockhead that featured lip smacking, glottal stops and other noises you would not associate with traditional vocal music.

Next up was the Gaudete Brass, pictured above in the wonderful photo by Elliot Mandel.  They rocked the house with a virtuosic set for brass quintet that included some truly beautiful music by David Sampson.  Our headliner was the incomparable Graham Reynolds, pianist, composer and bandleader from Austin.

Graham played a set of his music that included pieces featured in the movie Bernie, part of a ballet score and music from his truly wonderful disc the Difference Engine inspired by what was essentially the world’s first computer, made by Charles Babbage in the 19th century.

You can hear the whole show here

July 10, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

My first string quartet is a finalist in the American Prize which is pretty cool and, since I learned of this news not too long after the Fourth of July, very apropos.  I don’t enter competitions generally because, well, I hardly ever win them and that’s demoralizing and not to mention expensive as there’s always an entry fee and the cost of making parts, etc.

But I like the American Prize.  The whole process is very transparent, you know who is judging your work, the criteria for judgement are clear and they seem very fair and to have a genuine interest in promoting music whereas most competitions are really just trying to promote the competition.  Which is why they generally give the prize to famous composers whose names will add luster to the ranks of people who have won the competition thereby making the competition looking good even though any idiot can give an award to someone who has already made a reputation for themselves.

I’ll find out who the winner is soon.  I’d be very surprised if it were me but, since you get a performance of the piece in Carnegie Hall, it would be pretty cool to actually win it.  You can click on the photo above to hear a wonderful performance of the piece by the Chicago Q Ensemble.

July 3, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

DC-FireworksIsn’t that a deliciously bizarre photo?  I was looking for photos of the Fourth and came across that one, which I’m pretty sure has been photoshopped which only makes it all the stranger, and it called out to me immediately.  The Washington Monument always looks strange but here, surrounded by fireworks and dwarfing the more feminine looking than usual capitol building and with the perspective all out of whack, it looks like two grotesque figures cavorting in a vacuum during some kind of all out aerial attack.

Anyway, I have to say that nothing brings out my inherent misanthropic tendencies quite like the Fourth of July.  It’s not like I want to be a misanthrope, it’s just something I seem to be inherently good at.  Some people can naturally juggle or hold their breath for a long time or cook delicious stews.  Me, I’m naturally talented at grumbling under my breath while everyone else in the world is having a good time, and that makes the Fourth of July a kind of living hell.

For two days there has already been an incessant barrage of fireworks, and not the big ones that actually do something but the little cracker ones that just go pop pop pop.  Someone has strung thousands of them together and has spent the last two days mindlessly, relentlessly setting them off hour after hour.  How many of those fucking things did you buy??  What kind of mentality derives joy from doing this over and over for days at a time?  I’m almost tempted to go out and ask but I’ve learned over the years not to do that.  It never leads anywhere that’s in my long term health and safety interests.

I would like to propose new activities for our great nation on the Fourth of July.  Instead of parades and marching band music and stuffing our fat faces with fatty foods and the mindless blowing up of innocent fireworks that were just trying to mind their own business on shelves in stores in small towns throughout Indiana, let’s celebrate our independence with a quiet New York Times crossword puzzle on the back deck or a rousing chess game with your neighbor or finally learning that Schubert sonata you’ve been putting off because you know you’ll have to actually take the time to write the fingerings in and that attention to detail isn’t your strong suit but dammit it’s the Fourth of July and if you can’t do it now when can you?

Most likely I’ll be one of the few people in the country celebrating the holiday this way but it is at least a small step in the right direction.


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