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April 4, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead

Spring is the time for snow, rain, miserable cold and a complete lack of sun, or so it seems this year. It’s also the time for renewal in every culture of the world, some kind of cynical hope that things are actually getting better despite the fact that there’s snow in April which just shouldn’t happen.

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. (more…)

March 4, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead

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. (more…)

February 2, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead

bannonI 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. (more…)

January 6, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead


Originally published in Newcity Magazine 1/6/2018

It’s a funny thing about classical music that the folks who write the music are very often not the ones who play it. We composers rely heavily on learning to notate our musical ideas accurately so that music ensembles can bring them to life even if we can’t be in the room to answer questions, are not available to Skype or, in the case of many composers, have been dead for centuries.

But as amazing as the concept of notating sound is—and it is amazing—notated music still has its downsides. Notes on a page have an inherently sterile quality. Nothing feels stranger as a composer than playing a hot lick on the piano and then translating that musical energy into dispassionate black dots on a white page. You try to convey your idea by writing score directions above the notes like “with energy,” “bouncy” or “this is a hot lick, dammit!” but it’s not the same as just playing it would be.

Notation is inherently a nonmusical way to express yourself musically. Writing music down uses a different part of your brain than creating music, and notation functions by its very nature as a barrier between the composer and musician, or even as a barrier between the composer and his or her own ideas.

Notated music also serves as a crutch, enabling the musicians to play the piece hundreds of times without ever memorizing it, which has created the enduring image of a classical music concert in which the musicians spend the whole time staring into their music stands. Lastly, notation has resulted in a focus on perfection. Musicians spend years interpreting the black dots on the page trying to find exactly what the composer wanted so they can play it unerringly night after night in concert, which is nice and all, but as you can imagine, doesn’t make for a stirring performance aesthetic.

Composer Erik Satie had fun with overzealous score interpretation. He delighted in writing things in his scores like “wonder about yourself,” “open your mind” and my personal favorite, “like a nightingale with a toothache.” It took a dozen or so academic treatises on how to play the piano like a nightingale with a toothache before people finally realized he was messing with them.

In the past, most classical music ensembles spent so much time interpreting music notation that they didn’t think about performance aesthetics. They took to the stage dressed in drab colors, said nothing to the audience, sat down, played for a while ,and then at some point stood up, took a bow and went home. They believed that they were only responsible for the notes on the page, that their job was to interpret the black dots as best they could and to dedicate themselves to a perfect performance.

But the times are changing. For many new ensembles, interpreting the score at a very high level is only one aspect of the performance, to be combined with an exciting stage presence. Possibly the ensemble most dedicated to bringing a groundbreaking new performance style to classical music is contemporary music chamber group Eighth Blackbird.

I first heard Eighth Blackbird many years ago while driving home from a gig and listening to WFMT’s Monday night live in-studio program. I heard this incredible performance of a piece by avant-garde composer George Crumb. When the announcer said that the ensemble had played the piece by memory I was flabbergasted. Playing by memory is common in a solo recital, but it’s very rare for chamber groups to do it, and with a complex contemporary music piece—well, it felt nothing less than miraculous.

Memorizing the music allowed Eighth Blackbird to sort of pretend that it was never notated in the first place, that it arose spontaneously from the group at the time of performance. It allowed them to inject more of themselves into the pieces they played and, most importantly, it freed them from the tyranny of the music stand. In concert, Eighth Blackbird is fun, playful, intense and deeply engaging. Freed from their stands, they prowl restlessly around the stage in tightly choreographed movements that accentuate the music.

The group has recorded numerous albums, three of which won Grammys; they had a high-profile, year-long residence at the MCA in 2016; they’ve collaborated with rock stars like Glenn Kotche and Bryce Dessner; and they’ve been more or less continually on tour for the last twenty years, in which time they’ve honed their stage presence to perfection. Last year they started a new initiative, Blackbird Creative Lab, to share what they’ve learned with other classical musicians in the hopes of radically and forever altering what a classical music performance looks like.

“Blackbird Creative Lab is the culmination and dissemination of the lessons we’ve learned after two decades as a touring new music ensemble and as an organization,” says Nicholas Photinos, Eighth Blackbird’s founding cellist. “Through this intensive two-week, tuition-free program for pre-professional instrumentalists and composers, we hope to inspire a new generation of musicians not only through side-by-side performances, but by working with choreographers, lighting engineers, and sound engineers, giving them the personal and organizational tools to succeed.”

Blackbird Creative Lab is truly ambitious. Not only do they work with budding young performers, but they have a place for emerging composers. Creative Lab results in new pieces, interesting new ideas for dynamic audience-centered performances and an ongoing conversation about how to rebrand classical music.

As a composer, this is exciting stuff for me. Of course we want the ensembles who play our music to be diligent in their interpretation of our music, but a group that can transcend the limits of notation to make the music their own and convey it to an audience in a consistently exciting way is a really powerful thing. And if it becomes a movement that transforms classical music? That would be an incredible thing.

Eighth Blackbird will present a Blackbird Creative Lab Reunion Concert at Constellation, 3111 North Western, January 21-22, featuring alumni from the inaugural workshops this year. More information can be found at the Lab’s website.

January 3, 2018
Posted by Seth Boustead

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. (more…)

December 2, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

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.

f1880fb0-eb62-4713-83bf-fdfc56d16a77Remember 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. (more…)

November 8, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

Originally published in Newcity 11/8/2017


I had no idea what I was stumbling into when, on New Year’s Day 2016, I posted a hastily written, ill-advised blog entry denigrating sopranos. It was shared on Facebook, quickly went viral and enraged so many people that I publicly apologized and took down the post.

I’m not generally a controversial person, so to have all of this happen before I had even recovered from the previous night’s festivities was deeply unsettling.

The outcry, though, was an appropriate response to an article that was badly misinformed, poorly written and which repeated many hurtful stereotypes about classical singers, sopranos in particular. Worse, the article raised many points that merit discussion but which were overshadowed by my tone-deaf handling of the subject.

For anyone who, like me, grew up listening exclusively to pop music, the sound of classical singing can be strange, even off-putting. It takes getting used to, and even within classical music circles, vocal music is kind of its own thing.

In my teens, when I became wildly interested in classical music, I listened almost exclusively to symphonic and chamber music; no one recommended vocal music to me. When I got to music school a few years later, the vocal music department was practically a separate entity from the rest of the school and somehow I never stopped to think how strange this was.

But, turns out it’s not strange at all. According to the writer Matthew Lasar, “One of the problems with much classical music education is that it omits or glosses over vocal classical content.” Which spills over into public life as well, as Lasar relates: “Back when I worked at a New York City record store in the 1970s, I often helped newbies taking their first classical music appreciation course find appropriate albums. They displayed something close to an allergy to vocal music.”

Classical music radio has picked up these prejudices as well. KDFC in San Francisco came under fire in 2012 for airing classical vocal repertoire either exclusively in off-hours or—and this next bit is especially wild—with the vocal parts replaced with cellos or violins. It turns out that this practice has been widespread in radio and has created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which listeners now bristle at the mere thought of vocal music.

Lasar writes, “this situation is so strange and contrived. Every other format on the FM dial is about vocal music: rock, folk, country, jazz, hip-hop. Only classical radio suppresses this most human aspect of the musical experience during the hours when most people listen to radio.”

Classical radio programmers may well respond that the sound is unpopular, but this is clearly a problem classical music created for itself. So, allow me to ask the dumb question we’re all thinking: Why is classical singing so different from pop singing?

According to Kayleigh Butcher, a mezzo-soprano who specializes in contemporary music, classical singers have a different sound largely because they’re trained to sing without amplification.

This means they need a specific technique for breath placement and pressure in order for the sound to carry and be even throughout the range and project to the back of any hall, and—most importantly—so that the singer doesn’t hurt herself as so many pop singers have done.

For a pop singer, being amplified itself can lead to injuries because there is less emphasis on a technique that aims to protect the voice; and in fact it’s often the flaws in the voice that provide the distinctive sound, with some singers even intentionally roughing up their voices by smoking cigarettes, drinking whiskey or gargling Drano to “improve” their sound.

As for Butcher, in addition to being a great singer with a healthy interest in contemporary music, she’s also an imaginative concert producer and is collaborating with pianist Christopher Narloch at Constellation on November 19: “The Schönberg Project,” a performance of Arnold Schönberg’s rarely heard early twentieth-century vocal work, “The Book of the Hanging Gardens,” alongside newly commissioned pieces inspired by it.

“The Book of the Hanging Gardens” is a song setting of expressionistic poems by Stefan George, and is the classic tale of boy meets girl in a garden, girl symbolizes garden, girl leaves garden and garden disintegrates. Schönberg was looking for a new musical vocabulary, and found it in an atonal harmonic language which was shocking at the time, but which most composers have since abandoned.

Which presents an interesting challenge for the fifteen composers commissioned to write one-minute movements related in some way to each of the fifteen poems set by Schönberg. Composers, like all creative types, are constantly hoping to forge new ground and, though the general public may not know it, atonal writing has been passé for some time.

“I think it will be eye-opening for some people who still think Schönberg is contemporary and really experimental,” says Butcher, “to have it juxtaposed with actual contemporary classical music inspired by this (what I deem) older contemporary tradition. The new commissions, written this year, are significantly more unusual and shocking. I like the idea of blowing people’s minds with how far composers have come since the early twentieth century and programming them right next to each other.”

As she says, this concert isn’t for the casual listener. If you think that straightforward classical vocal music like Renee Fleming singing Schubert sounds weird after listening to Rihanna, then this will be downright bizarre. But when you remember what the intention of the composer is, the text that is being set and the demands made of the singer, it’s a fascinating experience to hear it sung live in an intimate venue like Constellation.

As for me, I’ve learned that writing off the entire canon of classical vocal music because of a bad experience with one singer (Kathleen Battle singing spirituals) is just asinine. As Chevy Chase’s character says in “Spies Like Us”: “We mock what we don’t understand.”

Taking the time to better understand classical vocal music has been deeply rewarding and I’m excited to check out the Schönberg Project. On a separate note, I’m also truly thrilled that I don’t have to watch “Spies Like Us” again any time soon.

The Schönberg Project, Sunday, November 19, 8:30pm at Constellation, 3111 North Western. Admission $5-$10.

November 2, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

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. (more…)

October 2, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

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. (more…)

September 15, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

PrintI’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. (more…)


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