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June 14, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

Carlos-KalmarSummertime for me means long bike rides, outdoor drinking, walks to the ice cream shop, sitting in the park reading a book, and of course the country’s only outdoor free classical music festival, the Grant Park Music Fest.

I’m giving pre-concert talks for several fascinating concerts this summer so if you’re in town and coming out, stop by the big white tent just west of the stage an hour before the show to hear my stunning insights.

And this year I’m not just talking about contemporary music which is odd. I’ve been entrusted with talks on Mozart, Beethoven and other stalwarts from the dim past.  Wikipedia here I come!

The full schedule is here!

June 2, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

When I was a music student lo so many years ago, there were teachers who liked to tell us all the time how much better things were in Europe.  According to them people were more sophisticated, there was broad support for the arts and classical music was the background to daily life.

One professor, who shall remain nameless, even went so far as to suggest that people in Europe by and large preferred atonal music.  In retrospect this is a ludicrous claim but at the time it seemed plausible enough. What can I say?  Young men aren’t known for critical thinking and it was an attractive idea.

At any rate, you can imagine my surprise when some years later I began making trips to Europe and was hard pressed to find a cafe or store playing atonal music, or even classical. Everywhere I went, in every European country, they were playing pop music.

Now after much experience I can tell you that the situation in Europe vis-a-vis classical music is very similar to what it is here.  Some people like it, some don’t.  No one prefers atonal music.

I bring this up because I’m leaving for France in about two hours on a two-week trip with my wife Maria to celebrate both her 40th birthday and our 10th wedding anniversary and I’m really excited.  But I’m also aware of the irony of heading to Paris in the immediate aftermath of a certain presidential announcement yesterday.

We’ve always had a fraught relationship with Europe. During World War I there was so much anti-German sentiment that Americans were encouraged to refer to hamburgers as “liberty sandwiches” and of course you probably remember the whole “freedom fries” thing a decade or so ago.

But I’ve never seen anti-European sentiment hit the fever pitch that it’s at right now.  There are a lot of decisions being made on emotion alone – or in service to a political base devoid of the power of critical thinking and in service to an all-consuming, inarticulate rage – that will cause immense harm.  We may be confused, divided, angry and willing to lash out blindly, but Putin and others like him are not confused.

The weakening of NATO, the end of American influence on the world stage, the growing acceptance of authoritarianism and human rights abuses, a new alarmingly cavalier attitude toward the truth and the willingness to demonize whole ethnic groups or religions, all of this only helps spread the chaos that fascist leaders like Putin want.

I know that we’ll enjoy our vacation in France but I also know there will be a darker undercurrent to the trip as well and I know that every conversation we have will likely revolve around politics and that’s a shame.

Chaos comes out of order, there is no system that won’t break down on its own. But there’s also no reason to go around helping it out. I hope we can remember that Europe is our ally and a powerful and necessary one at that.

Even if they don’t actually prefer atonal music…

May 1, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

Labour_Day5b44I’m writing from sunny Mexico where I just finished two shows at the Cineteca Nacional as part of the first ever Vitaphonc Festival featuring films with live music in several different contexts, including ACM’s long-running Sound of Silent Film Festival, live music from Stanley Kubrick films as part of an incredible exhibition and a xxx animation festival which, while not quite as titillating as it sounds, was still a lot of fun.

Today is National Worker’s Day in Mexico, similar to Labor Day in the U.S. but, as far as I can tell, with fewer BBQ’s.  Although if you’ve ever been to Mexico then you know that I’m not exactly starving.  Great food is never a problem here.

So I’m taking it easy today and thought it would be fun to celebrate the holiday by lying in the sun and typing up a funny work story from the past.  I got my first job as a paperboy when I was twelve years old and have been continuously employed ever since so there are a lot to choose from but I’ve settled on a little incident that occurred during my stint as a delivery driver in college.

I was studying music composition at the University of Missouri and insisted on having an apartment instead of living in the dorms so for most of the four years I was there I delivered sub sandwiches to anyone who could afford our minimum $6 order which, unfortunately for me, was nearly everyone.

The job was appealing to me though because they had their own cars and had found an insurance company somewhere that would insure a bunch of 20 year-olds, most of whom were male, which is crazy when you think about it.  So none of us had to worry too much about the cars and well, we didn’t.

One night I got an order to Highland Parkway which was in a tony suburb of sorts and was a very long street with no stop signs, causing us to refer to it as Highland Raceway.  I located the house and, for some reason backed into the drive which I never usually did, and would never do again.

I stopped the car, apparently leaving it in reverse, and craned my neck to make sure it was the right address.  At which point my foot slipped off of the brake and the car, having a fast idle, began moving. I panicked and tried to hit the brake but hit the gas instead and slammed into the garage door hard.

The door made a horrific sound and immediately collapsed around the back end of the car.  I got out and stood there stupidly holding the food. When the incredibly angry man came out of the front door I stood there like a moron and all I could think to say was “the sandwiches are free, man.”

I then had to gingerly hand him the bag, get back in the car, repeat the horrific metal grinding noise as I worked the car out and head back to the shop where I was greeted by my manager who was, well, less than pleased.

They paid for the damages to his door and, incredibly, I kept my job.  I wouldn’t get fired for nearly another year but that’s another story altogether.  Happy National Workers Day!

April 2, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 1.47.16 PMShakespeare was half right when he said all the world’s a stage.  What he forgot to mention was that the world’s a stage and we the players but we’re mostly just starring in a revival.  For the four thousand years of recorded human history we’ve pretty much been playing out the same sordid drama over and over.

I first read of the concept of the hydraulic despotism in the works of historian Arnold Toynbee who did not coin the term but wrote compellingly about it. As soon as humanity left behind the hunter/gatherer way of life in favor of agriculture, it became necessary to control water distribution and to stockpile grain and crops and other resources.

A class of despots arose who claimed divine rights to the lion’s share of these resources and a priestly class arose who backed up their claim. It was also necessary to protect the resources from marauders and so the soldier class arose.  For the first time we donned our roles and not much has changed ever since.

The agrarian revolution was certainly a great thing in many ways.  It allowed for specialization which brought technological improvements and a class of professional artisans, doctors, philosophers and more, but we’ve never gotten over this idea that some people deserve more of the resources than others. It has, in fact, haunted civilization from the beginning.

In hunter/gatherer times if an individual were a selfish asshole, he could smash someone on the head and take his nuts and berries sure, but he had limited power to affect the group as a whole and the group always had the power of casting him out which in most cases was certain death.

There is a thought that human history is on a divine path from the muck of our beginnings through the various seismic shifts of agrarianism, industrialism and now technologism (which sounds kind of weird but is in fact a word, and not a dirty word either.)  But where does this path take us?

At the moment our greatest resource, money, is mostly invisible and psychological in nature. People get rich, and poor, merely by speculating on psychological reactions other people will have to various and sundry phenomena, many of which were manufactured to have the desired effect. The hydraulic despotism still exists but it’s now an economic despotism.

As recent political movements have shown, people are aware of this and unhappy but we have a new priestly class in propagandist media and their message is powerful, constant and, as it was in the past, meant to keep Pharoah in control.

I don’t call for a revolution because revolutions are never successful in the long term, merely another act in the drama.  Instead I wonder how we shift people’s focus from shortsighted accumulation of power and resources and instead onto the only thing that matters in a reality in which your individual self is fated to die: helping other people.

In the meantime another act in the drama plays out.  Again…

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.

 

 

 

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