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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.

February 21, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

IACI’ve put that logo on more concert programs over the last eleven years than I can possibly remember.  Thanks to funding from the Illinois Arts Council I and several other musicians from ACM have traveled to Mexico and to Paris to perform concerts of music by Chicago composers.

Thanks to funding from the IAC, we have commissioned composers around the world, flown them to Chicago to hear their music performed, we have brought contemporary classical music to venues throughout the city and we have opened music schools in three different neighborhoods.

They’re not our only sponsor and the money they give us is a very small part of our overall budget but nonetheless, they’ve been hugely helpful to us and to so many other arts organizations in the state and, considering what a small part of the state’s budget they receive, I would say that the return on investment has been extremely high.

How terribly sad then to see our new governor Bruce Rauner, who spent $64 million, $27 million of his own money, to get elected, decide that he can somehow balance our budget through cuts alone without even trying to find new revenue sources.  How sad to watch him cut the IAC to the bone while giving raises to his staff, insisting that all Illinoisans must feel the pain while making it clear that this excludes those close to him.

No, the only ones to feel the pain will be the downtrodden, poor, mentally ill,  those who wish to use roads or public transportation to get around, and the artistically inclined.   Why do we artists have to defend art’s place in society?  Nearly all of the renowned societies throughout human history were renowned because of their arts, the only possible exception being the Romans who were renowned for orgies, aqueducts and aquiline noses.

It’s a sad but true fact that Illinois artists, and artists throughout the country, have to find ways to make art on their own.  We cannot expect help from our city, our state or our federal government.  We have to create earned revenue to support ourselves and create the art that we want and we have to become a force to be reckoned with.  The mere fact that creating art is universally considered part and parcel of what it means to be human is not enough to have the government which we support allocate a miniscule portion of its budget to in turn support our work.

Farewell Illinois Arts Council.  It was a good ride but we’re on our own now.

 

February 13, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Mexican_museumIf there’s a more peaceful place in an urban setting for contemplation and tranquil thinking than this lovely patio at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, I don’t know what it is.  I spent several hours here yesterday writing in my notebook, thinking, and just kind of spacing out in general.

Since I’m here in Mexico studying Spanish, language has been on my mind quite a bit.  When I first started studying Spanish five years ago I worked to memorize my vocabulary mainly by relating Spanish words to their English equivalent, but over time I learned to stop doing this and to just picture the object or concept for which the Spanish word stands.

I’ve always been fascinated by how, in learning a language, you learn more than a mere set of different words, you learn how the people who speak that language view our world.  I was thinking of this at the museum, how a mesa for example, is not really the same thing as a table.  You can say that mesa “means” table but that’s not quite true.

Both cultures had the idea for a table, an object on which you could set other objects.  The idea existed in the mind first and then it was made real and then given a name.  This to me is a much more interesting way of thinking of about this than that a mesa is the Spanish speaking equivalent of a table.  It also brings us to Plato’s idea of the theory of forms.  In the theory of forms there is a perfect table that exists in a different world, a spirit world of permanence. It is a kind of archetypal table, of which the table in our world is a mere imperfect copy.

I always thought that this would imply that all potential forms existed in this spirit world and, as conscious beings like humans had ideas, they were pulled forth as imperfect copies in this world.  But, upon reflecting on language and how everything that can be given a name must have existed as an idea first, I now think that we have a direct impact on this world of forms.

It is consciousness that has the power to create ideas and to bring those ideas into the material world, in howsoever imperfect a manner.  Therefore it is consciousness that populates the world of forms in the first place and allows them to be real. We always wonder how consciousness arose but I would argue that there was no other choice but for consciousness to arise, that it is as much part and parcel of the fabric of the universe as anything else.

The Aristotelian Unmoved Mover, the Big Bang, or whatever the “first” event was, was simply the result of a form of consciousness having an idea, and since consciousness or the potential to become conscious, is perhaps the one thing that pervades any understanding of reality, it was inevitable that ideas would populate the world of forms and inevitable that they would then be copied imperfectly in the material world.  That is of course if you believe in the theory of forms.

Anyway, these are the kinds of thoughts that can flit through your mind in a place like this.

February 7, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Agnieszka_installment_one1For the past nine years ACM has had a project called Composer Alive in which we’ve commissioned composers from countries around the world to write a new piece for us.

Nothing unusual in this except that we’ve asked them to write the piece in short installments so our ensemble can play each installment in front of a live audience and post the audio to the site in real time as the composer writes it.

The problem with this is it’s hard to get an audience to come to watch a group rehearse and record two minutes of music.  We’ve tried this every which way over the years but this year, I think we finally hit on the right way to do it.

We’ve partnered with two people who frequently have salon-style events in their homes featuring musical and other arts performances and asked if we could partake.  It turns out that this is the perfect format in which to unveil part of a new piece and rehearse and record it in front of an audience.

The intimate setting, the gathering of people who are interested in the arts conspire with the wine and appetizers to create a conducive atmosphere for listening to unfamiliar music in an appreciative way.  I wish we had thought of this years ago!

From now on this is how we’ll conduct all of our Composer Alive projects and I’m already looking forward to next year.

January 28, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

norwegian_wood

Chances are if you’re a person who likes to read fiction you’ve read something by Haruki Murakami.  A few years back his book the Windup Bird Chronicles was the most frequently spied book on the subway, before it was taken down by the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and then Game of Thrones which is still the book I see most often.

I’m writing about this because popularity in art is a very interesting subject.  I’ve had frustrating debates with friends in which I recommend Game of Thrones or Murakami and they say “I’ll never read that, it’s too popular!”   This implies that being popular is always being populist.  That if a book or song becomes too popular it must have been because of a populist intention on the part of the author and therefore he or she has sold out and is now useless.

I had the same disconnect when Modest Mouse came out with their Good News for People Who Love Bad News album and everyone who previously loved the band universally proclaimed them sell-outs and heaped scorn upon them.  But I loved that album and thought it was the next logical step in their trajectory.  Of course they’re going to hire better producers when they can afford to do so and just because the album sounds slick does not necessarily make it bad.

I will admit that it’s weird that frat boys embraced that album and of course that’s the other side of this issue.  If something is so popular that a group of people not only outside of your peer group, but radically different in outlook, behavior and opinions on which way the visor of a cap should be turned, embrace the same art that you love well, you have no choice but to dump it and find something new to love.

As Fred Armisen would say in Portlandia, it’s over.

I get that, I really do. I’m sure there are thousands of people reading Game of Thrones who I would not like personally and I’m also deeply convinced that they’re missing the subtle nuances of the books in favor of the surface details of sex and violence.  But are they?  Isn’t that just my ego assuming that no one but me or people I deem to be like me, can truly understand the art?

Yes it sucks when you walk into a bar and there’s a meathead rocking out to a song that you love.  I hate that feeling too but we have to be on guard, maybe you have more in common with the meathead than you think.   But then again maybe that song is just over.

 

 

January 19, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

robert-kritz-square-2-160x120I had lunch with Robert Kritz yesterday in his swanky retirement home on Lake Shore Drive and it was quite an experience meeting him.  He’s going to be a guest on my show Relevant Tones for a segment I do called Composers Among Us in which I interview composers who don’t have a major profile, people who could be behind you in line at the grocery store and you’d never know that they spend a considerable amount of their time thinking about shaping sound.

Many of the composers featured for this segment have unusual career paths and interesting stories but I think in many ways Bob’s tops them all.  His compositional career was interrupted numerous times over the course of his long life, he’s 87 at present, but he always found a way to get back to it.  Bob was always musical and played the piano in several dance bands but then was drafted and fought in World War II.

After the war he married at the age of 21 and they had a child but the child was tragically born without kidneys and the time spent in the womb drawing off of the mother’s kidneys damaged irreparably damaged them and both mother and child died.  Bob was stuck with the bills and so for the second time he put off thoughts of composing and entered the business world to earn enough money to pay off the medical bills.

Then came another wife and eventually a large family and there was no time to compose until he retired at the age of 65.  He decided he wanted to start composing again and he took his 45 year old scores to Northwestern University and showed them to several professors who liked the music enough to organize a concert of them.

Several musicians at the concert liked the music enough that they commissioned Bob to write new pieces and set off a ten year flurry of performances and commissions that eventually waned but did result in several pieces, including his saxophone concerto, that are still performed today.  All of this was in the late ’90′s when I was a composition student at Roosevelt University and I remember it well.

I was very pleased when I met the saxophonist David Pituch, one of the many musicians championing Bob’s music, and he suggested a show.  Bob will be my guest for a live show on January 31 starring David on saxophone and members of the Orion Ensemble performing his early pieces and some that are brand new.  It should make for great radio.

January 11, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

upworthy-51The idea behind clickbait is nothing new.  Journalists have been trying to sell you with their headlines for as long as there have been newspapers.  But there’s a big difference between a New York Times headline, or a headline for the Onion for that matter, and the clickbait headlines that are now clogging up Facebook and other social media and the difference is intention.

In both cases the headlines are not written by the person who wrote the article or made the featured content but in journalism there is supposed to be a factual, thoughtfully written story that the headline writer is trying to draw your attention to, whereas with clickbait it doesn’t matter at all where you’re being routed, just so long as you click.

There are several problems with clickbait in my opinion.  For one thing it represents a huge downgrade in the quality of the content the reader is directed to and since people will read anything and are incredibly easy to influence,  we have to be careful what we’re telling them is important.  If they’re being directed to a thoughtful New Yorker article great, but if they’re being directed to funny cat videos, articles about how to be more sexy, or shocking and often horrific imagery well, it’s just not creating the kind of society I want to live in.

Another thing that’s dangerous in my opinion is that bloggers are now writing the content and creating the headline, and are able to track which headlines get more clicks.  This means that content is being generated from the headline or with the headline in mind and it’s all rigged to get the maximum number of clicks. I’ve had several arguments with bloggers about this.

They say that it doesn’t matter how good your blog is if no one reads it and so you should stuff keywords and phrases like “this one incredible trick I found” to entice people to click.  I understand this point and agree that it sucks if there’s good content that no one reads but I argue that if you start by stuffing your headlines with key words and it leads to more clicks you will eventually find yourself on a slippery slope where you’re shaping content to get clicks, thereby letting yourself be led by the reader.

It’s better to write the best content you can and try to promote it without resorting to clickbait.  I feel this way about newspapers, television news programs, publishing companies, radio stations, pretty much all forms of media.  For decades they’ve been letting the consumer decide what is of interest and the result is news without real news, just heartwarming fluff, fear mongering public safety stories, celebrity gossip and idiot banter.

The preponderance of clickbait is just the latest example of a turn away from thoughtful journalism toward giving the people anything and everything they may want in the desperate hopes that their behavior will become one hundred percent predictive so we can give them what they want before they even know they want it thus creating an air tight and perfectly inane economy of lobotomized idiocy.

Thank goodness the New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post and a few noteworthy others have resisted this trend.  So far.

December 28, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

touchtunes

I don’t know what music those people are playing but I bet it sucks.  That’s because the device they’re using, Touchtunes, is an inherently evil, invasive machine that has vastly degraded the once pleasurable experience of going to a bar.

If you don’t know how Touchtunes works, it’s a new-ish jukebox that allows you to search for and play, not every song in the world by any means but quite possibly most of them, with the touch of a button or with an app on your phone.  The problem with this is that, confronted with such a dizzying array of choices, most people are overwhelmed and don’t know what to play.

Touchtunes solves this problem by having “Most Popular Songs Played” as the first option which means that it is the option most people choose and as a result a friendly neighborhood barfly like myself may be subjected to something like Night Moves by Bob Seger two, even three times in a night and that’s just wrong. Patrons can also pay extra to have their songs pushed to the top of the list and there’s no limit to how many times they can repeat a song so, not only might you have your playlist replaced by Black Dog, but you might also have to hear it multiple times in a row.

Speaking of Black Dog, I didn’t choose that title arbitrarily.  It’s incredible to me how many people, virtually all of them, play music exclusively from the ’60′s, ’70′s and ’80′s.  There is a dearth of music selected from our own time and to me frankly that’s just weird.  Billy Idol, Fleetwood Mac, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, etc. should be retired from jukebox and radio station playlists the world over.  Most people don’t listen to new music, they have twenty or so go-to nostalgia songs from their past and so that’s what they play when they go out and Touchtunes rewards this behavior by making the most played tracks cost a credit less than other tracks thereby fostering mediocre, unimaginative playlists that promote brain dead listening habits.

The truth is that we should not be placing the awesome responsibility of selecting what music is played in the hands of the masses.  The music must be curated by someone with sensitivity and taste and with some idea of what kind of environment they’re going for.  This would be a D.J. or someone who curates a limited selection for a jukebox.  There are plenty of crowd pleasers that aren’t Benny and the Jets which I just had to hear last night and yes it’s not a bad song but my God how many times do I have to hear it before I die when there are so many great artists out there today that deserve to be heard and who I’d much rather hear than Elton Freakin’ John who has had his day and done quite well thank you very much?

All of that is bad enough but the truly frightening thing about Touchtunes is the way they have stripped identity away from bars, many of whom were defined by the music you’d hear within their grimy walls.  Bars used to have to curate the music that was in their jukeboxes and there was an eclectic but still limited choice for the patrons who often would choose which bars to hang out in based on the music in the jukebox.  With the advent of Touchtunes, however, bars no longer have a sonic personality and you’re as likely now to hear some watered down band like Death Cab for Cutie at a punk bar as you are to hear, you know, punk rock.  Once the Touchtunes is installed and turned on you can say goodbye to any kind of individuality because even if your bar is called Bones of the Undead I guarantee the first song someone will play will be Endless Love or something just as bad.

 

 

 

December 16, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

Seth_CC_artist_renderingI got a nice treat after my solo concert yesterday at the Chicago Cultural Center, a woman came up to me and gave me a drawing she had done of me playing!  She did a nice job with it.  I especially like how she converged two perspectives so you get the side angle of the piano where she was sitting but you also get the view of the keys superimposed over it.

The concert went very well, there were over 150 people in attendance which is incredible for a Monday afternoon and I felt pretty good about my playing although like any artist I can be pretty nit-picky.  But sometimes you have to just relax that self critical thing and enjoy a success and it was definitely a success.

And I have such a wonderful memento of my first solo concert now too.

 

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