Anyway, one of the interesting things about Richard Hell is that he started out as a poet but started the Voidoids because as he says, “it sounds obnoxious but I wanted to influence the culture and there’s maybe two poets per generation who get to do that.”
This is interesting to me because my contention lo these many years has been the opposite, that we can change the culture over time so that it is more conducive to the creation and appreciation of things like poetry and, oh I don’t know, let’s say contemporary classical music.
I was having a very nice rye whiskey with my visiting guests from Mexico recently at a bar in Manhattan called Brandy Library, a gorgeously appointed room replete with bookshelves that, instead of books, were jam-packed with exotic whiskey bottles, and we started talking about this very thing.
Having produced concerts in both Mexico and the U.S. I was saying that what I find most interesting about playing and programming music in the U.S. is that people always tell me how glad they are that they came. No one says this in the other countries in which I’ve worked.
But here they say it because they know that it was a close thing. They almost stayed home and watched Netflix but they made the game-time decision to go to the concert and once they were there they were so glad they got out of the house.
It’s interesting to me because no one says this after they see a movie, like, oh I’m so glad I managed to get my butt off the couch to see the new Avengers movie tonight. This is partly because seeing the new Avengers movie was never in doubt and partly because we’ve normalized going to see blockbuster movies to such an extent that people do it without even thinking and often without even enjoying the experience.
With respect to Richard Hell though, I would say that the answer isn’t for all of us in the arts to form legendary punk bands, develop a drug habit, lose a couple of decades, clean up and become respected elder statesman writers, as interesting as that would be. I think there’s another way.
As I sipped my whiskey the other night I couldn’t help but think about Budweiser. Partly as a joke like what would the sommelier, (yes there was a whiskey sommelier,) say if I ordered a Budweiser with a straight face. But also thinking about what they’ve been able to do with advertising.
I mean they’ve conditioned millions of people to drink Bud Light despite the fact that it’s objectively a bad product. Just like Hollywood has conditioned us to go see the latest blockbuster even though at least half of them are mediocre CGI fests.
Since I’ve often seen firsthand that people in this country thank us for the experience that we artists provide, which is our product, my question is how do we condition people to go out and hear unfamiliar music, attend poetry readings, check out the latest opera and beat a well-worn path to the doors of their local storefront theater?
The answer is advertising dollars and a mascot. I’m thinking some kind of Spuds Mackenzie-esque arts dog. Or maybe Culture the Vulture? Parrot Lunaire? Buff McPoetson? Clearly this will need more thought. Perhaps we should meet at the Brandy Library for a brainstorming session?
Speaking of hope, in Greek mythology humans were created by the Titans, those forebears of Zeus and the gang who are still mainly archetypal but are just starting to exhibit anthropomorphic characteristics like, well, stupidity. I’m thinking especially of Epimetheus, the Titan charged with handing out positive traits to animals and humans alike.
His name means afterthought and he’s portrayed as a sort of Harpo Marx-esque bumbler who can’t do anything right, isn’t funny and can’t even play the harp. Just the person, or immortal, to entrust with such a task! So of course he screws it up. He goes around handing out positive traits to the animals, you know, things like having a warm pelt, the ability to chew a cud and I don’t know, lightfootedness or something.
But he hands them all out and forgets to give anything to humans. Idiot! So his brother Prometheus (forethought) has to intervene and give us fire and civilization for which he will later be punished by Zeus and have to hang chained to a rock while a vicious, pate loving vulture eats his liver every single day until Hercules finally rescues him.
And then, as if this this weren’t bad enough, Epimetheus goes and marries Pandora who opens a certain box containing all the evils of humanity including plagues, disease, famine and Adam Sandler movies. The only good thing in the box was, you guessed it, hope which springs eternal but really only serves to prolong the misery of it all.
Ok, so it’s not warm and apparently won’t be for some time but on the bright side I’ve got fire and civilization and a vulture is not currently eating my liver, although the bottles of mezcal I brought back from Mexico may do the job just as well. Still, I’m not chained to a rock so that’s something. Although, now that I think about it, that’s probably just hope talking. Insidious hope.
I’m sitting at the international terminal at JFK whiling away the time with a newspaper and, so far at least, all of the articles that aren’t about Trump are about the Oscars, which is sort of like our national divide in miniature isn’t it?
I’m at the international terminal because I like to come here to watch people happily reunite to remind me that love actually exists. No, that’s a movie, plus I’m in the departures terminal and though I’m sure the people around me love someone, they’re mercifully not showing it at the moment though many of them are watching videos on their phones with the sound on and no earbuds.
Which is just rude. How can you find love if you don’t even respect the people around you? I mean do you really think I want to hear Love Actually? And why are you watching a Christmas movie in March? Oh wait, it’s not Love Actually, it’s that other one with Hugh Grant where he owns a bookstore and meets that famous film star Julia Roberts. Notting Hill, that’s it.
So now here’s Notting Hill bleeding into my newsletter when I meant to be writing something poignant about our national divide and all because she can’t be bothered to use earbuds. I should sit next to her and read my newspaper out loud in retaliation.
This movie is so unrealistic. He spills orange juice on her and they kiss? I spill orange juice on people all the time and it’s never once led to a kiss. And yeah, I’m not Hugh Grant but still, we’re talking about gallons of spilled juice here. You know, over a period of many years, not all at once. How would you even pretend that was an accident?
Anyway, the thing about the Oscars and Trump is that both hold up a mirror to our society. Hollywood tries very hard not to make films that don’t already have a demand. As Kumail Nanijani said last night they “do it because you get rich, right?” So we know that celebration of diversity is in the air.
But it’s undeniably true that Trump’s societal mirror is just as accurate a portrayal of what’s in the air and it’s the polar opposite. The question now is whether we really are two societies as it seems we’re becoming or have been all along or if, like the characters in Notting Hill appear to be doing, we can put aside our differences and make it work.
Oh wait, what’s this?? She has a boyfriend?!?! Ugh, guess we’re doomed.
Ooh, they’re boarding my zone. I’m off to Mexico!
I spent a recent weekend afternoon, yesterday afternoon if you must know, on the couch watching basketball with the sound off while listening to the audio book version of Fire and Fury. I was watching the Houston Rockets light up the San Antonio Spurs while the narrator, a marvelously deadpan Holter Graham, shared the inner workings of what appears to be the most dysfunctional White House administration in modern history.
It was about midway through the second quarter, I remember because James Harden had just finally missed his first shot of the game, when I heard that one of Steve Bannon’s many pre-Breitbart jobs was running Biosphere 2, an experiment to see if humans could live in a completely closed system for two years as a prelude to colonizing other planets once we’ve finished making the one we currently live on uninhabitable.
This was in the early ’90’s and it was a complete disaster, largely because of cost overruns and extensive litigation by two former biospherians who had a long-running dispute with Bannon. The cost overruns, by the way, were probably because they built the thing, out of glass mind you, in the Arizona desert and cooling it cost more than a million dollars a month which, you know, maybe there was a better way to have done that.
Anyway, as it happens, I’m a bit more than halfway through T.C. Boyle’s latest novel, the Terranauts, a fictionalized account of this very same Biosphere project and I actually sat up from my slumped position and said aloud to no one, “what a strange coincidence.”
Of course the Biosphere program is well known because of that critical darling of a Pauly Shore movie which used rapier wit to unearth the sublimated Freudian return-to-the-womb desires inherent in the project and couple them with razor sharp dialogue revealing the human condition in all its tragic grandeur.
Or was that a different movie?
Anyway, I sat there thinking of rumpled Bannon overseeing a sterile 3-acre glass ecosphere in the desert, barely watching as Houston continued to eviscerate San Antonio, and wondered if maybe this wasn’t the way of the future after all?
Maybe Steve Bannon and Pauly Shore have it right. What if we all had our own ecospheres? There could be artificial environments tailor-made for conservatives, liberals, foodies, early music people, consumers of Tide pods, lovers of Pauly Shore movies, you name it.
We’re heading there anyway so we should get a jump on it. As for me, having spent so many idyllic childhood summers in Lord of the Flies camp well, I’ll be fine in any of them.
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.
My Italo Calvino-inspired piece Daughters of the Moon will be performed by Unheard-of Ensemble on October 28 as part of Read More
The first movement of my new piece Useless Machines for Thinking, Dreaming, Feeling will be performed on September 15 as Read More
ACM’s first concert of the season features music inspired by travels in Peru, interlocking tesserae in a mosaic and the Read More
My radio play 1001 Afternoons in Chicago is the closer for this year’s Thirsty Ears Festival! Created with composer Amos Read More
Every year I produce the Thirsty Ears Festival, Chicago’s only classical music street festival and, though it’s hard to believe, Read More
One of Chicago’s newest ensembles Lakeshore Rush will perform my piece Group Dance as part of the Thirsty Ears Festival Read More
I’ll play my piece Whitespace with cellist Talia Dicker on Sunday, July 14 at 5:30 as part of the Concept Read More
My piece Uplift, inspired by Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center, now the TWA Hotel, will be performed on June 5th Read More
I’m one of four composers writing music inspired by Eero Saarinen’s groundbreaking design for the former TWA Terminal at JFK Read More
My work Songs of Perception will be performed on May 17 as part of the Queens New Music Festival. The Read More