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May 28, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Meatloaf: the crown prince of bad art hell

When you think about it, it’s truly astounding how much bad art must exist in the world.  Every artist that has ever existed has had to wade through some lesser iterations before getting to the handful of masterpieces that often define their career, and if the best artists made some bad art well then the rest of us must be making a lot of bad art. Times that by the bajillions of people making art that have existed since the beginning of art and that’s a lot of bad art.

Let’s just focus on music though.  What happens to all of the bad music? Does there exist somewhere a form of hell in which the penitent is forced to listen to the millions of bad pieces that have been written over the years?  In what form will these bad pieces exist?  Will they be badly played by a bad ensemble or expertly played by a fine ensemble who suffered the misfortune to wind up in this hell and is now forced to play bad music nightly? A kind of double punishment.

Does every masterpiece always require dozens or more failed attempts?  What about a one-hit wonder in the rock world like My Sharona?  Did the Knack write a dozen lesser versions before hitting upon the right one?  Is there a parallel universe in which the lesser ones are good art?  Is My Sharona good art?

Perhaps there’s a double universe structure where one is the repository for bad art, art that only exists as a trial run for the later masterpiece that then exists in the second universe.  Of course both versions exist in our universe but in the bad art universe Picasso would presumably be ridiculed.  Unless of course the bad art universe contains no sentient beings and is only a repository for bad art, a kind of transcendental storage house.  Also, perhaps the art that exists in our universe, both bad and good, exist merely as imperfect Platonian copies of the art in the other universes.

Then if good and bad art exist in parallel universes, are artists creating the art that is in them or do the artists have different attunements and are merely pulling pre-existing art from one or the other of the universes?  Some are attuned primarily to the  bad art universe like Meatloaf or Wagner’s illegitimate son Gerhardt  and others are primarily attuned to the good art universe like Radiohead or Wagner’s great great grandson Erich.

Obviously the human race can never know the answer to such deep questions but perhaps there will one day exist an app that allows us to only tune into the good art universe.  Until that day though we’ll just have to muddle through.



May 14, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead


We’ve had a lot of great challenges in this country, not least of which was the civil war which as we all know was fought over whether or not to sweeten iced tea.  Ever since losing the war, the south has fervently promised to rise again and of course we northerners have always considered this to be complete drivel.  But all of a sudden I’m not feeling so smug.

As an avid consumer of iced tea, (I would say 2-4 cups a day on average including a disturbing tendency to keep my cups from Panera and Chipotle so that I can refill at different locations later in the same day or sometimes on a completely different day,) I have noticed a troubling trend of late: more and more restaurants are defaulting to serving iced tea pre-sweetened or favoring teas that are sweeter than a nice, comfortingly bitter black tea.

This can only be the nefarious work of the southern states who invented the idea of sweet tea in the first place.  New York, Chicago and Boston are no place to drink sweet tea.  Plus it just doesn’t make any sense. Why pre-sweeten the tea?  You can’t take sugar out of the tea but you can always put it in.  It’s totally crazy and I for one will not have it!

Mark my words and look around you.  Sweet tea is only the beginning.





April 30, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Photo1950I moved to Chicago almost exactly twenty years ago and have seldom done any of the normal tourist things. I haven’t been to the top of the Sears Tower for example, I haven’t taken the architecture cruise (I know, I know!) and I had never been to the top of the Hancock building to have a drink at the Signature Room until yesterday but I can scratch that one off the list now. Well, I can make a list and presumably include that and then scratch it off.

Once again I find myself incredibly happy to be part of ACM’s anual Composer Alive project because every year it takes me out of my normal routine and often makes me a tourist in my own city as I play host to composers from around the world.

That photo was taken as the sun was going down so it’s hard to see but the city is spread below us and watching the sun go down was a magical moment that I was very happy to share with our visiting composer from Warsaw Agnieszka Stulginska.  Thanks Agnieszka for showing me how beautiful my city is.

April 20, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

SOSF_2014Why do directors still make silent movies in the modern era? This is of course a rhetorical question that I don’t have the answer to but I suspect that for many directors the idea of telling a story without dialogue, or even sound effects, is an intriguing challenge and so, though the days of Rudolph Valentino are long gone, there are still an incredible number of filmmakers today working in silence.

In 2005 I had the idea to start an event that would pair images with newly composed music in an interesting and innovative way and I decided that the thing to do would be to focus on modern silent films, which I wasn’t even sure existed.  But I wasn’t going to let a little thing like that deter me!  My way of doing things is to write a press release and send it to everyone and then I have no choice but to make it happen.

I found the best film from the first year in an almost laughable coincidence.  I went to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at a neighborhood park with my wife and I ran into someone who asked what I was up to lately.  Upon answering that I was searching high and low for modern silent films he said, “that’s funny, the guy across the hall from me is making a modern silent film.”

The guy across the hall turned out to be Dave Less and I scored his film Manos de la Muerte for the first year.  Another film from the first year came from Sergio Assad’s son Rodrigo who had eschewed the family trade of music and focused on film instead.

Over the years we did some crazy ambitious things like rescore Chris Marker’s classic film La Jetee with narrator and a small orchestra, hire singers to perform a deeply satirical version of the opera Carmen by Alexander Payne, ask four composers to write a seamless score for Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 74 minute masterpiece Gaudi, and perform music for a film to be projected in four directions simultaneously.

But the last couple of years have been the best.  The addition of conductor Francesco Milioto and a regular body of performing musicians have meant extraordinarily high musical quality, all of the movies are now submitted to us by world class directors which has vastly increased the quality of the films we’re showing and the audience is growing too.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since I sent that first press release. It’s been a wild ride but I wouldn’t change a thing.  Here’s hoping for ten more years!





April 13, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

I recently had the opportunity to fly to New York to cover a preview concert of Jennifer Higdon’s new opera Cold Mountain at the Guggenheim museum, put on by Santa Fe Opera.  I was having a drink in the bar the night before the concert with two of the publicity folks for Santa Fe and one, who had gone to school in New York, was talking about how amazed she was that her friends wanted to do completely different things while in the city than she did.

I agreed and said it’s always interesting how so many people have different ideas of fun, that your New York is not their New York.  I was reminded of this today when I got an email from a musician friend of mine who’s playing with “the best musicians in Chicago” and I didn’t recognize a single name. I don’t doubt that they’re great musicians, I was just surprised that, after so many years living here, there’s still so much more to the city than I’ll ever know.  His Chicago is not my Chicago.

I remember moving here in 1995 and being overwhelmed at first, but humans have a curious ability to break down overwhelming things and make them manageable.  First I moved to the north side of the city which cut it in half, then I settled in one neighborhood which, like so many Chicagoans, I rarely leave, and the city became manageable.  But it also became a reflection of me to a certain degree.

I cut myself off from the parts of the city that are not like me and then assume that Chicago is like me, that it’s my city.  But of course there are millions of people living only a few miles away who experience the city in a completely different way.  One of the advantages of city life should be that we seek out new parts of the city, new lifestyles and points of view, that we explore other people’s experiences of our city and don’t stay stuck within our own metaphorical city which is really a metaphor for our self-imposed ignorance.

Not saying I’ll get around to doing this of course, not during Game of Thrones season anyway. It’s just been on my mind.  Of course, your Game of Thrones is not my Game of Thrones either.

April 6, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead
1001_WFMTI’m typing this minutes after the end of our live broadcast of 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago: A Radio Play on Live from WFMT.  I’m so grateful to Kerry Frumkin and to Andi Lamoreaux for agreeing to let us do this, to Francesco Milioto, our incredible conductor, for keeping it all together and to the musicians of Palomar and the wonderful actors at Strawdog Theater, not to mention my good friend and director Anderson Lawfer and my composer colleague Amos Gillespie.
That’s a lot of people to thank!  I feel like the oscar music should be starting up.  But seriously, this project has involved so many people and at times I never thought we’d pull it off and I was certainly  beginning to think that we’d never be able to perform it the way it was meant to be heard: live on the radio.
What an incredible joy then to sit in the Levin studio and watch three years of hard work come together and sound so beautiful and know that somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 people are listening.  I live for these moments!
March 29, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

jennylinliz1It doesn’t even feel like spring but I’ve already completed the Relevant Tones listings for summer.  I think it’s a great line-up and am looking forward to getting into the studio to tape!

RT 15-27: CD Grab Bag
We’re having a ball trying to keep up with our ever-expanding musical collection as composers and performers around the world joyously overwhelm us with their creations.  We’re consistently amazed by their level of talent and artistry, and are thrilled this week to share their music with our listeners.
(release 7/1)

RT 15-28: Pianist Jenny Lin
Stunningly versatile pianist Jenny Lin has recorded with jazz musicians, rockers, contemporary composers and everyone in between.  Equally comfortable playing Shostakovich on the same concert as giving a world premiere, Lin is a vital talent that is taking concert halls by storm.
(releases 7/8)

RT 15-29:  Above and Beyond
In recent years composers have become interested in the fact that the performers can do things on stage other than just play their instrument: stomp their feet, clap, play simple percussion, and even sing.  We’ll feature a variety of pieces from composers who ask musicians (who are not trained singers) to vocalize and supplement their playing.
(release 7/15)

RT 15-30: Composer Champions
Where would Gustav Mahler be without the incredible support of Leonard Bernstein?  Bach without the support of Mendelssohn?  Being championed by a famous performer or conductor is an incredible leg up to the career of many composers.  Who are the modern day composer champions, and whose work are they promoting?
(release 7/22)

RT 15-31:Composer Spotlight: Alvin Singleton
Critic Kyle Gann says “Singleton’s music is soulful, with an understated simplicity that I particularly prize. Despite the studied economy of his means and the set character of his images, the music is never cold … nor abstract. It glows with warmth.”  We’ll feature Singleton’s music on our next Composer Spotlight.
(release 7/29)

RT 15-32: Cityscapes
We all know the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture inspired by Fingal’s Cave, and the music by Vaughan Williams inspired by the English countryside.  But in the modern era, the urban environment is inspiring many composers to capture its sounds in music.
(release 8/5)

RT 15-33: A Change of Opinion
Throughout history, composers who have been known for championing a particular musical style have shocked their fans by radically and suddenly changing their aesthetic.  Why does this happen, and who’s changing their style in the modern era?
(release 8/12)

RT 15-34: The Modern Symphony
Much like the novel, people are always pronouncing the symphony to be a dead form.  And yet, composers continue to write symphonies at an incredible pace.  We’ll feature music by composers around the world who are adding to the symphonic canon.
(release 8/19)

RT 15-35: The Laptop Ensemble
This week we’re exploring a newer musical medium: the laptop.  We wanted to find out what exactly groups named PLOrk, CLOrk, and Benoit and the Mandelbrots could possibly have to offer. The answer surprised us.  We discovered improvisation, live coding, and even orchestral collaboration.
(releases 8/26)

RT 15-36:  Composer Collectives
The twentieth century saw an interesting movement as composers banded together in collectives to help promote each other’s work. The movement has only gotten stronger in the twenty-first century with the rise of entrepreneurialism in classical music. We’ll feature the music of several composer collectives and take a close look at their inner workings.
(releases 9/2)

RT 15-37: SIRGA Festival  
A relatively new festival in a remote part of Catalonia featuring music by electro-acoustic composers, SIRGA has recently grown into an international event that brings musicians from all over the world.  Relevant Tones visits the SIRGA festival to feature audio from their concerts.
(releases 9/9)

RT 15-38: Composers Among Us: Michael Colgrass
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Michael Colgrass has had a varied career as jazz drummer, freelance percussionist and composer of a dizzying array of works in every conceivable genre.
(releases 9/16)

RT 15-39: Kronos Quartet
Ground breakers, virtuousos, and commissioners of many of the world’s twentieth and twenty-first century string quartet masterpieces, the influence of the Kronos Quartet cannot be underestimated.  We’ll talk with the musicians and feature a sampling of their luminous output over the years.
(releases 9/23)

March 15, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

PaderewskiRoom_polishMuseumOfAmerica_t411_a379I recently was given a tour of the Polish American Museum in Chicago and I was stunned at the beauty and rich diversity of the art on display.  The paintings exhibit an enormous range of style, from Impressionism to Modernism, Pointillism to Expressionism, nearly every “ism” I could think of.

But for me personally the biggest thrill was by far the Paderewski room.  In the photo above you can see an exact replica of his hotel room in New York when he lived there right down to a cigarette in the ashtray that looks he just put it out.

When I was taking piano lessons as an undergraduate, my teacher would only let me buy editions of Chopin that had been edited by Paderewski.  Only he understood Chopin’s music and was fit to be its editor.  Because of this I always had a vague impression that he was probably a brilliant pianist but best known as an editor.

What a revelation then to discover the real Ignacy Paderewski some twenty years later in a museum on Milwaukee Avenue!

What an incredible guy!  A brilliant pianist and statesman with larger than life charisma who was literally a living legend.  He was Prime Minister of Poland and signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of Poland after World War I, he was an outspoken proponent of Polish independence and represented Poland at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the list just goes on from there.

I’m really enthralled by the idea of the artist statesman like Paderewski or Vaclav Havel.  Paderewski, unlike the vast majority of politicians it seems to me, absolutely had the best interests of Poland at heart.  And he was a brilliant pianist.  I’m so glad that I finally got to know him.


March 8, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Hans_FalladaI’ve just finished reading Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada and it’s an absolutely chilling novel, partly because of its story and partly because it shows so clearly how easy it is for fascist ideas to take hold in the human mind.

Set in Germany in 1933 right before Hitler’s rise to power, the book is the story of an average working class couple trying to make their way in a small town and, later, in Berlin while gradually being enveloped in the shadow of the awful events to come.

What makes the book so powerful is the way that we understand the early sympathizers to the Nazi party.  Everyone is angry, everyone wants a scapegoat.  At first the scapegoat is authority itself, the political party in power, but later, as everyone knows, it is ethnic groups, gays, people with different religious beliefs and then, ultimately, even other Nazis themselves.

Because there’s no way to stop the process of hatred once you give in to it. Once you declare someone to be “other” and persecute them you have started an inexorable process that destroys everything in its path.  It’s a horrific cliche to compare modern day politicians to Hitler and that certainly isn’t my intent.

But there is a disturbing tendency in American politics to declare a particular group “other” and try to strip them of their rights.  Even if it were possible to do this, and thankfully I believe that we’ve progressed too far for it to be easy, it is a dangerous path that leads only to paranoia, suspicion, divisiveness and ultimately war and suffering.

Books like “Little Man” are so important as they show us clearly that we’ve walked down this path before and it is not a path any of us wants to walk down again.

February 28, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

toccata-and-fugue-in-d-minor-160x120I recently did a show for Relevant Tones called Visual Aids in which we asked artists to suggest imagery for a variety of different pieces.  In some cases we asked multiple artists to suggest imagery for the same piece.  I got this idea long ago after many years of producing my Sound of Silent Film Festival and noticing that composers could write any kind of avant garde idea they wanted, as long as there was visual imagery accompanying the music.

Without the imagery people would often complain that the piece was atonal, thorny, unlistenable, etc.  The usual words people use.  But when paired with imagery suddenly the music was evocative and powerful.  Fast forward years later and I now have a weekly radio show.  What if we play “difficult” music but ask artists to suggest imagery for people?

Well, the show airs today so we’ll see if it’s successful or not but the experiment itself was fascinating.  Each artist had such detailed imagery, in almost every case accompanied by a narrative storyline that was incredibly creative and rich.  It was interesting to me that in every case the narrative was integral to the visual imagery.  Not one artist just suggested random images, instead the images were almost cinematic in how they served to tell the story.

It occurred to me that this is the main thing that people want from art, and perhaps from life in general: to be told a story.  If there is no story accompanying a painting, most people will make up one to go with it. We are narrative creatures by nature, a byproduct I’m sure of the causal nature of how we think.  I’ve always told composition students that to be successful their music must communicate something to the listener.

But what I would say now is that it must tell a story of some kind.

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