Tag Archives: npr

Digital Music Battle Royal: Reax & Roundup

If you’re a musician or know one personally, then the past ten days or so have likely affected your blood pressure. What started as a simple All Songs Considered blog post (that annoyed me) snowballed into an all-out blitzkrieg throughout the net, with guns blazing (bombs dropping?) from all sides: for, against, attempting to find compromise, tearing everyone down, etc. I even received some flak for my quickly-written rant.

Because no one wants to read yet another article on this topic, suffice it to say that I stand by my two big points from last weekend:
1. NPR’s Emily White illegally acquired most of her library, despite her stating otherwise via some creative rationality.
2. My beef was not with Emily White specifically. What she wrote bothered me, but, as I stated last week, I know that she’s one of millions. Instead, I was “shocked and chagrined” by NPR Music’s de facto endorsement of her position by allowing its publication via All Songs Considered. After all, NPR Music is a major media organization that relies heavily on listener support. An interesting juxtaposition if you ask me…

Anyway, I thought it’d be worthwhile to curate a number of last week’s posts related to this issue for anyone wanting to return to the battlefield. While I have so much to say on this topic, I need a mental vacation from it. (And I’m also scrambling to pack…) I’m not necessarily endorsing the POV of all of the below articles. I full agree with some, fully disagree with others, and have mixed feelings about most.

In somewhat chronological order:

“I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With” — NPR Music’s All Songs Considered, by Emily White

“Euphemistically Stealing” — MT-Headed Blog, by yours truly

“Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered” — The Trichordist, by David Lowery

“In Defense Of Emily White (The NPR Intern)” — Hypebot.com, by Emily White

“File sharing? It’s nothing personal. Seriously.” — McCarthyisms for Your Work Week, by David McCarthy
(David’s elusive online beyond the blog, but he’s a friend, former classmate, and someone with whom I always enjoy engaging on a variety of topics.)

“A Personal Aspiration Towards Ethical Listening” — Lubricity, by Alex W. Rodriguez

“White Vs. Lowery (Or I Don’t Have Time For This)” — The Clatter of Keys, by Erin McKeown (She’s great in concert, by the way…)
(Honorable Mention: Best Title contender)

“Music Followup” and “A Response to This Guy’s Response to This Other Thing on the Internet”My Quiet Life, by Chris Wage

“Hey Dude From Cracker, I’m Sorry, I Stole Music Like These Damned Kids When I Was A Kid” — Huffington Post, by Travis Morrison
(Honorable Mention: Best Title contender)

“I buy more music than Emily White, and you should too” — CityPages, by Erik Thompson

“A Perpetual Debate: Owning Music In The Digital Age” — All Songs Considered, by Robin Hilton

“Emily White, David Lowery And The Future of Music Consumption”Forbes.com, by Leor Galil

“Can we ease up on Emily White a little bit?” — by David MacDonald
(Another former classmate. I knew he’d chime in on this – and from this perspective – and that’s part of the reason I held off from posting this until now.)


PS: For giggles, I decided to listen to a little Cracker, for which I paid many years ago, when clicking “Publish.” That, coupled with all my previous contributions to NPR, should help to bring balance to The Force.

Euphemistically Stealing

Yet another article was posted to NPR’s All Songs Considered blog Saturday morning concerning iTunes in the Cloud, specifically referencing Bob Boilen‘s transition. I’ve enjoyed reading the occasional updates on this, as I’m about to join iTunes Match myself. While I’ll continue to invest in physical copies and (paid) digital content, I’m augmenting my library with it. (As opposed to “making the switch” – I’m not trading one for the other.) I think it’ll be a great help while teaching, especially during my month-long study abroad program in Austria.

This article, however, was not by Bob but an intern, Emily White. In her article, titled “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With,” she made the decent point of iTunes Match not being a big deal because her whole library is already digital. Therefore, the transition from physical to digital is non-existent.

Beyond that, I was caught up in the twisted logic behind her music library: “I’ve only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs. […] But I didn’t illegally download (most) of my songs.” At this point, Ms. White lists euphemism for how she “legally” acquired the rest of those albums:

• Kazaa (the only “illegal” ones)
• Gifts (no problem there, of course)
• “Swapped hundreds of mix CDs” (um…)
• A 15GB “deposit” onto her iPod (*raises eyebrow*)
• “I spent hours on the floor of my college radio station, ripping music onto my laptop…” (what?!)

That’s a list of euphemisms if I’ve ever seen one. “Words that hide the truth” were George Carlin’s greatest linguistic enemy (see my thoughts on him and his rant here), and also one of mine. The above list begets: “As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. […] But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums.” But she would like to pay for Spotify, hoping that the company one day includes a much better royalty payment system than its current iteration.


Really? I’ll not waste too much time re-treading every reason why I believe it’s important to pay for what you like, since regular readers of this blog probably know my stance well. I see and hear the “convenience” trope quite a bit, but rarely does it answer the question of how the fan will actually pay for the music. And the fact that this was so proudly and publicly written by an intern at NPR Music – a really solid source for a whole variety of music and music news – further flabbergasts me. “Hey, musician! Come play our Tiny Desk series. Don’t mind our employees that don’t financially support your primary creative mode of expression. Got any free schwag for them?” I was no fan of Bob’s article about concert volume – though it inspired me to write this post on noise protection – but at least he financially supports the art he loves.

Swapping mixed CDs and “ripping” music is still stealing. Yes, stealing is a harsh word. But let’s avoid the “soft language” (as Carlin put it), and opt for the “simple, honest, direct language.” In music school, I knew a bunch of classmates who would spend hours at the library ripping albums to their computers. Because music is an aural art, the listener isn’t physically touching the music while he or she listens. But if it were a book instead of a symphony it’d be a different story. Imagine walking into an English major’s home or office and seeing their personal “library” of thousands of photocopied books in 3-ring binders. Impressive? Meh, didn’t think so. Yes, check out an album or ten from the library. But if you like, get your own copy. Really, it’s not that hard.

Instead of going deep with artists or genres, I’ve heard many people refer to their music collections in terms of bytes. “Yeah, man, I have 20GB of jazz.” Cool. Have you listened to it all or know it well? Or did you get a 15GB deposit too? While I don’t like to part with my money, I enjoy paying because I then have a vested interest in the music. I paid for it, therefore I’m damn well going to listen to it. Even if it’s a blind purchase I end up disliking (which rarely happens), I’ll give it a couple good listens just to be sure. And if I like it, then it’s mine and I’m happy to have it. I earned that money, therefore earning that album or box set, and I’m going to take it in. It’s also why I don’t like to buy too many albums too fast. While I have a one album per week average, I’ve ended up recently falling behind on my listening because I’ve gotten ahead of myself with my purchases. Six new albums in the last couple weeks means that I just today listened to Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium, an album I bought two weeks ago. (It got lost in the shuffle.) When I say I have 1,XXX albums, trust me that I’ve listened to them all.

Beyond my ownership of the content, I want to support the musicians behind all of these recordings. Yes, Apple and the various record companies take a big chunk of change. I understand that, and don’t much agree with the ratio. This is where I empathize somewhat with Emily’s attitudes toward Spotify. But there are also other models. Louis CK wasn’t the first to totally manage the distribution of his content. Radiohead beat him to the punch with In Rainbows and then King of Limbs. And there were others before that. Yes, Metallica has more money collectively than they know what to do with. But what about those thousands of other lesser-known and unknown musicians out there doing the nitty-gritty on the road and at the local level?

Yadda, yadda, yadda…

I get it. People will steal music. It’s now part of the culture. But you’d think that, at the very least, musicians and those in the industry would perhaps participate in this tricky bit of commerce.

Pay for what you like. And, to NPR Music: get it together.

Serendipitous Blogging

My somewhat rambling article on style from Sunday night/Monday morning found some serendipitous company today in Colin Holter’s article on NewMusicBox.org. The piece was his reaction to a bad review by Pitchfork and a discussion of “indie-classical,” also written about by Pitchfork here. I of course know I’m not the cause of the article – it’s on a separate topic, and I’m not that narcissistic. What really piqued my interest was that it provided a good example (I think) of just what I wrote about: style, jargon, and canon.

I’m not here to be snarky. While that generally creates more traffic, this isn’t that kind of blog. But I do find it curious that instead of critically avenging the abysmally-reviewed musical work, Holter goes on to nit-pick the meaning of a style via unloading jargon and canonical references. At the end of the article I was left with the following thoughts:
• What about Travis Morrison’s “extraordinary solo debut”? Why is o.o stars offensive?
• I’m on the same page as Colin concerning a “definition” of indie (and the mention of the protohipster!)
• Why is everyone so caught up on the stylistic label? Whether a composition is labeled “indie-classical” or “progressive grindcore” (a description of TOOL I once read in the late nineties, its absurdity is why it’s stuck with me ever since) should be secondary to whether or not it’s musically good. Once again, unfortunately, the style has trumped the content.

On another front, there were a couple links I intended to mention last week but decided against it. (Again, I’d rather this blog not be reduced a Tumblr-like series of links.) However, since I’m on the subject of timing, I thought it was funny that my MTH-V post on Tricky in early January was followed a few weeks later by this NPR article on trip-hop. (Why they don’t link to Tricky’s main site in the first paragraph, since there’s no NPR page for him, is beyond me.) Then, a few weeks later (or, rather, last week) there was this Rolling Stone announcement about an upcoming Tricky performance. While I’d like to think that cosmically I was somehow involved in those other two posts, I know it’s simply a coincidence.

Just some interesting nuggets from my RSS aggregator. 🙂

Style & Canon

Style is much larger than a happy mix of canon and jargon. In fact, it can be downright incendiary.

(Photography by Jillian Hakala)

The week before last, my partner Matt Borghi and I – together known as Teag & PK – had a couple local radio spots. The first was a part of 89.7’s Coffee Break and featured a brief interview, during which we were asked the dreaded question: what type of music do you play? We offered a lengthier-than-necessary non-answer (telling the host what styles we don’t play as opposed to those we do), hopefully hiding our annoyance – not with the host, but with the question. We abhor discussing it. As I touched upon in this post, our collaboration features many different musical avenues: one night we’ll feature electronic ambience and improvisation, the next it’ll be completely acoustic and Matt will improvise vocal blues a la Son House (and well, might I add). Simply saying “folk” does more to exclude a large chunk of what we do than cast a wide net. We’re not bluesy enough for the blues-ers, not folky enough for the folkies, and not jazz enough for the jazzers. Instead we are what we are and quite happy with that. (Although it does present an ongoing PR problem.)

I mention this because “style” in general has been a personal nuisance for many years. A label, on paper, may just be a single word – folk – or handful of words (post-hardcore [huh?]), but in context it presents a multitude of problems. If something is “folk,” then what kind? Appalachian? Woody Guthrie? Hungarian? Ani DiFranco? If none of those, does the label then somehow do a disservice to those disparate forbears? If it’s completely different, why use the label at all? Simply because it’s acoustic and not on commercial radio?

A few weeks ago I finally watched Jazz In The Present Tense: Icons Among Us, the 2009 documentary that “answered” (to put it lightly) Ken Burns‘s Jazz. Now, I know that people love to complain about the Ken Burns behemoth, and I’ll be the first to jump all over it. After all, it spent ~19 hours exhaustively discussing everything jazz from 19th-century roots music through hard bop, but then gave ~45 minutes of lip service to the 1960s avant-garde and highlighting Young Lions of whom Wynton Marsalis approves. Cute. But for all its sins, Burns admittedly did a lot of good – the archival material alone is worth the time and money. And it does a wonderful job of presenting jazz and its beginnings as a product of African American culture, and (rightly) how the music fits into the context of US race relations. However, perhaps the biggest fault (or virtue, depending on your viewpoint) is that the whole documentary is based upon a particular canonical view of jazz and its stylistic definition. It really is pretty solid for the first 5 or 6 episodes, but becomes exponentially narrower as the series progresses. It goes from being all-inclusive  to a museum exhibit, allowing access only to those musicians (curators) who once associated with those now-or-soon-to-be-dead icons. (Wynton played with Art Blakey and therefore is the designated torch-bearer, right?) As one of my favorite professors in graduate school said, “Classical music is now mainly an amusement park for old people.” (This coming from a harpsichordist.)

Enter Jazz In The Present Tense. While the documentary of course features many contemporary musicians from the broader jazz spectrum, it’s thesis has to do with the word “jazz” itself. Whereas Burns (and Wynton, or rather Wynton via Burns) stated This is jazz, JITP asks What is jazz today?. The answers come from all sides – Terence Blanchard, John Medeski, Bill Frisell, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Robert Glasper (his newly-released Black Radio is getting much press), Donald Harrison Jr., Marco Benevento, and more – and it’s quickly evident that these disagreements aren’t  slight. For example, Harrison’s obsession with both hard bop and his association with Art Blakey would even make Wynton blush. The divide between the more traditional jazz-is-anything-up-through-hard-bop and jazz-needs-to-keep-changing-to-stay-alive camps is quite evident. The filmmakers also take some time to focus on the word jazz‘s parallel in rock: jam band. I was very refreshed to see that, as “jam band” is more of a bad word than anything according to many musicians. After the Grateful Dead, most bands who featured improvisation wanted to be called anything but a jam band, a problem that continues to this day. Of course, Herbie was the one to perhaps best state the problem, saying, “The term jazz, in a sense perhaps, is its own worst enemy.” Herbie, one of the last remaining living legends – literally – is still light years beyond not only many of his peers but also the younger generations, both artistically and intellectually. (One of the many reasons I hold him on such a pedestal.)

[Side note: I couldn’t help but literally laugh out loud when Nicholas Payton appeared on my television as the first interviewee, spouting his nonsense. For those at least peripherally aware of online jazz “debates,” he’s heated up the blogosphere the last few months with self-righteous, incoherent rants, stating that jazz is now dead and that we should call what we think of as jazz “Black American Music” instead. Payton’s new term isn’t the problem – it’s his schizophrenic non-explanations of it. He does make compelling points now and again in his various blog entries, but the ongoing argument as a whole is…something. NPR’s perennially-disappointing A Blog Supreme has given Payton’s tripe far more attention than it’s due. If you’ve seen #BAM on Twitter, that’s probably why…]

Of course, this isn’t a film review. My viewing the documentary, coupled with the recent radio spot, are simply two instances out of countless similar experiences I’ve had. But the whole dilemma of style isn’t just an matter of definition, but one of context, as it’s reliant on many factors. One such factor is canon. Every style has its major works that serve as hallmarks. However, once you scratch the surface, you become aware of just how deep the rabbit hole can go, as not everyone will agree on everything. As with the two jazz documentaries, Burns was comfy with most styles through Hard Bop (except for Cool/West Coast), and Icons found almost no consensus on anything.

The classical canon, and expectations of students’ familiarity with it, has stuck in my craw for many years. Going to college and graduate school for (mostly) classical performance is interesting for a saxophonist, considering the instrument is only ~165 years old. Consequently the instrument’s repertoire is only a fraction of the size of the flute’s, violin’s, or piano’s. This causes two issues: 1) saxophonists, unlike most other classically-oriented instruments, are immersed in contemporary music, but 2) this also causes a deficit in performing and knowing older (Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, early Romantic) literature. While most classical saxophonists probably couldn’t pick out the second movement of one of Beethoven’s string quartets, we also can pick out and understand the sequenzas of Luciano Berio better than most other classical musicians. Does that mean that classical saxophonists are somehow “less than”? No, it’s just a different animal. Speaking for myself, I have an interest in many of the older/other styles and genres, specifically Renaissance and Baroque music and Wagner. (The latter goes deep.) And my personal (not just academic) interest in orchestral music has really deepened these last couple years. But of course home base, classically speaking, is still contemporary music. (To reference another recent internet meme, I’ve been correcting a musical blind spot. With much enthusiasm.)

I definitely agree that in order to learn a particular style of music (be it a broad category such as classical or jazz, or perhaps narrower like heavy metal), one should be intimately familiar with both the style’s history and the details of its evolution and various iterations. But I don’t believe that it ends there. Not at all. Those who’ve forged ahead to create something new – large or small – have almost always included some sort of outside source or influence. Besides, regarding the above jazz discussion, the biggest argument against the jazz-must-continually-evolve-and-include-outside-styles crowd is that it overlooks or even disregards earlier styles. Following that logic, however, why is it that pre-Hard Bop purists are allowed to do the same for later styles without similar condemnation?

As regular readers know, I’m equal parts classical, jazz, and pop. (Only in that order for alphabetical reasons.) I cringe each time I write, say, or type “classical and jazz saxophonist,” or anything else to that effect. Honestly, I just consider myself, plainly, a “saxophonist” or “musician.” And frankly, at the end of the day, the only canon I’m really concerned with is my own – the canon that has shaped me. As a musician, I’ve worked for years on developing my own personal style and aesthetic. Much work indeed remains to be done, and I’ll arguably never be complete. If someone were to assemble the canon of Michael Teager’s musical education, there would of course be saxophonic references – Coltrane, Liebman, John Harle, James Carter, etc. – throughout, but it would also include the music of the Top 5, Elton John, Richard Wagner, nineties rock, and ECM, just to name a few. Yes, I know A Love Supreme forwards and backwards. (And rightly place it above most other works of art, where it belongs.) But I’m just as familiar with CrashMellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and Aenima (to focus on ’95-’96). And they’re just as important to the musician I am and continue to become as any other “major work.” I discussed this latter point slightly over a year ago here.

It’s not that I think standard repertoire need be diminished or negated, but room must also be made on the pedestal for other, more individualized preferences. In fact, such personalization should be encouraged. While younger generations are becoming more open-minded, it seems that the old guard, especially in classical music, jazz, and other academically-associated musics, remain set in their ways. Slowly but surely, the boundaries are eroding.

This topic has many tributaries, and if I go any further you’ll need breadcrumbs to find your way back. But it does tie together. Style – jazz, classical, folk, blues, rock, etc. – is more than just a word, like it or not. It implicitly suggests and entire tradition and repertoire. Even slight deviations from a stated style can jar the listener, promoter, booker, and/or critic, taking me back to the introductory anecdote about Teag & PK‘s “style.” What do Matt and I call our project? Does it matter? It seems to be in our interest to avoid  such categorizations, or simply make one up just to end the discussion. Common problems we’ve encountered are:
• We’re not “folk” because of the sax (and occasional electronics)
• We’re not “jazz” because of all the verse-chorus songs
• We’re not “blues” because it’s too folky
• We’re not “rock” because it’s guitar and sax
• We’re not “indie” because…we’re not hipsters? 🙂 (We still haven’t figured that one out.)
• Those ambient improvisations? What the hell are those?!?

And to top it off, we really don’t care what it’s called. We’ve considered calling it “acid folk” – not to be confused with “psych folk” – just to have something consistent. And it doesn’t offend any purists we may encounter along the way. When Matt’s canon – ambient, rock, Flight of the Conchords, and blues that Alan Lomax would approve of – meets mine the result is something beyond either of us. It’s also beyond simply picking one style and sticking to it.

The result is what matters. Not what we call it.

On New Music

I think a lot about “New Music.” Part of my preference for it is my Classical Saxophone perspective: (relatively) “new” instruments require new music to create a lexicon. And while not all new music (especially for saxophone) may be of high quality, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Another reason for my dwelling on New Music is from a teaching perspective. In my Music Appreciation classes, I always expose my students to New Music and some of its related concepts. I don’t care that they like it, and they know it – I simply want them to experience it, and to be able to explain their (dis)liking it.

I’ve started a number of drafts of what would have been this post over the last few months, only to delete them all. Each time the article has branched off in a different direction. Instead of trying to encapsulate everything in a single post, I decided to cover each item separately. For this first article, I’d like to start with an anecdote from last year.

As mentioned in my previous MTH-V post, I attended Belgian new music ensemble ICTUS‘s Austrian premiere of Harry Partch‘s The Wayward. Their performance was part of the “Kunst aus der Zeit” (“Art of Our Times”) series, the small new music branch of the annual Bregenzer Festspiele. I was able to arrange for my students and myself to attend a closed rehearsal, and I attended the premiere two nights later. For those unfamiliar with Partch (and I’m guessing that’s most everyone reading this), in brief:
• Partch is one of the many, and arguably one of the least-known outside of musicians’ circles, composers who pursued an “American Sound” in the 1900s
• He pursued not only an American sound, but sought to create a new musical system based largely on microtonality
• Not stopping there, he constructed his own instruments to properly convey this new musical language
• Corporeality: “The dramatic fusion of human speech, music, and movement, and inseparable combination of these parts into a larger whole.”
• For more (better!) Partch information, explore Corporeal Meadows and HarryPartch.com.

Before going further, I should mention that I’m no Partch expert. My combined assigned reading in undergraduate and graduate school of his life and music totaled maybe ten paragraphs, one selection on a CD, and a VHS clip. And as for my teaching, he received, until this point, brief mention, if any, as an example of Twentieth Century tendencies. My unfamiliarity was actually one of the big reasons for my excitement for this performance.

The Wayward includes all of the above aspects, and is arguably his most-known work (relatively speaking, considering none of his music is “known”). Another way to put it – this was the one piece I knew of his offhand. Because his music was written for instruments he constructed, he receives little-to-no-performance outside of a few “Partch ensembles” (mostly run by his surviving associates and students). Unlike a standard classical work, one can’t simply purchase a score, assemble musicians, rehearse, and perform. This is largely why it took a half century for the Austrian premiere to occur. (The Wayward‘s four parts were composed in various stages from the 1940s to the 1960s.) That being said, ICTUS went about their performance in a drastically different manner. Instead of reconstructing the required instruments, composer Tim Mariën re-orchestrated The Wayward for performance on common (often fixed) instruments. Hence ICTUS’s more “traditional” approach. (And controversial, according to members of the aforementioned Partch ensembles…more on that later…)

The Wayward‘s biggest, and arguably most well known, movement/section is “U.S. Highball.” It illustrates a hobo’s transcontinental railroad journey, using vocal techniques more reminiscent of sprechstimme and American folk than more classical means. That programmatic context, along with the above bullet points, was pretty much all the preparation I gave my students before we attended the rehearsal. (That, with a dusting of, “You’ll think it sounds weird and likely incorrect, but please remember that the musicians are 110% serious about the piece…and it’s supposed to sound like that.”) My reasoning was that I wasn’t as concerned about their becoming intimately familiar with Partch specifically, but rather I wanted to lightly prepare them to hear a type of music they’d never heard before or since. In my judgement, having them experience the music live with little-to-no context would be a great experiment of sorts. (After attending the rehearsal, we had a comprehensive debriefing, both with myself and also with the organizer of the new music concert series.)

In a portion of their final reflective essays, I asked my students to select and explain both their favorite and least favorite of the musical events they attended throughout the course. While only one or two listed Partch as their favorite – one or two more than I had expected! – only a couple listed it as their least favorite. (The winner of that category was actually Judith Weir‘s opera Achterbahn, the world premiere of which we attended.) On paper, one would likely expect Partch to be the outright loser for an audience of non-musicians, but that is perhaps the problem: it’s what is expected on behalf of musicians (in this case, academic musicians). For those who listed it as neither, most students told me that they enjoyed it much more than they had anticipated, and that it showed them that contemporary music didn’t have to be something to necessarily fear or avoid. And part of their reason for accepting it (and even enjoying it) as they did was the fact that we attended a closed rehearsal. They were able to witness the ensemble occasionally start, stop, tinker, argue, and refine the music. It was a peek behind the curtain for something that, to them, could have otherwise been simply organized chaos.

Their overall positive reception caught me off guard. Pleasantly.

As evident in the article, this experience has stuck with me for a variety of reasons:
• I simply enjoyed the performance (and being able to attend the rehearsal).
• It was great to expose my students to such a rare piece of music.
• It was great to see something most academically-oriented musicians see as “out there” go over well with such a general audience. (The room full of Austrians at the premiere seemed to really enjoy the performance as well.)

ON NEW MUSIC: Advocates, The Ivory Tower:
Now, what does this have to do with concerns over “New Music”? Frankly many, but I’ll try to isolate just a few here. The first has to do with we musicians who advocate and perform such music. This unexpectedly, but welcomely, came to life in the comments section of my previous MTH-V post. I was taken to task, and rightfully so in a sense, by Jon Szanto. He curates Corporeal Meadows, a wonderful online Partch resource (one that I had actually used a few times myself before and after attending the Austrian performance), as well as having known Partch at the end of his life. He presented a very valid point: the ICTUS performance was not authentic, as it featured a re-orchestration for traditional instruments, and therefore the music was drastically cheapened. Amusingly, he said comparing ICTUS to Partch was like comparing the Portsmith Sinfonia to the Berlin Philharmonic. 🙂

I can’t argue with that. I’m a Partch novice, and the above performance was simply an introduction. In areas I’m much more comfortable and knowledgeable, I’m equally picky. For instance, one of my pet peeves is classical saxophonists obsessing too much over transcriptions. I hate to break it to my colleagues: Bach didn’t write for the saxophone. Neither did Mozart. As valuable – and necessary – as that music is to our technique and understanding of older styles in our practicing, it needn’t be the focal point of the instrument. Now and again it’s perfectly fine, but after a while you’re conveying more of an inferiority complex than anything, in my opinion.

This question of authenticity is proper for debate. After all, musicians should always look to honor the music. But when it comes to reaching listeners and advancing our art, the context changes. As Jon rightly noted, the Berlin Philharmonic is great. Amazing, actually. However, most laypeople don’t experience the Berlin Philharmonic. Instead they attend local, regional, and university orchestras, most of which are more akin to the Portsmith Sinfonia. Then, assuming they enjoy themselves, perhaps they’ll take a greater personal interest, discover more music, and eventually listen to (or even see) top tier ensembles such as the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As I told Jon, I remember attending performances of local classical and jazz ensembles in middle and high school, but now that I am one such performer I pretty much only seek out those top tier ensembles for performances. (Local rock scenes can function much the same way.) In this case, Jon and I agreed that ICTUS served this function for me. I was able to experience Harry Partch’s music live in some fashion, something most of my colleagues can’t claim, and now I’d like to eventually see “the real thing” (Partch music performed on Partch instruments). Since then I’ve invested in recordings and plan to purchase more.

ON NEW MUSIC: Audience:
This brings me to the final point (for this article, at least): reaching an audience. One of the biggest complaints among New Music enthusiasts is that no one besides fellow musicians wants to listen, or at least no one seeks it out. Fair enough, I suppose. But where is most of this New Music performed? In the United States, outside of major metropolitan centers, it’s largely relegated to university campuses (and associated churches and community centers when new music artists are on tours). That’s hardly getting it out there to the public. Of the many recitals I gave and/or attended while a student, rarely was there someone in the audience who wasn’t a friend, family member, fellow music student, or non-music student meeting a class/assignment requirement.

Perhaps one solution would be to take the show “on the road,” so to speak. Maybe instead of giving a performance in a university recital hall, it’s moved to a local space in town and off campus. I know some former classmates of mine did this with a (SCENE) & Heard It series at East Lansing’s (SCENE)Metrospace. Instead of waiting for the new ears to come to the performer, the performers can bring the music to new ears. Advertise it alongside local rock, jazz, and hip-hop acts. Put it in similar venues. Maybe even a double-bill of disparate but complementary acts/ensembles. What if – gasp! – you didn’t wear a suit or tuxedo to perform? Outside of my music appreciation course, my students didn’t have advanced musical knowledge when attending ICTUS’s performance, yet most of them quite enjoyed themselves. The setting was casual (granted it was a rehearsal, but the actual premiere didn’t require formal attire either), offering one more welcoming layer – or rather removing one more intimidating layer – to the first-timer. (Along those lines, The Corporeal Group asks similar questions [see bottom of page] about Partch’s music specifically, but those can also be applied to new music generally.)

Similarly, more “traditional” venues and series must be brought up to date. After the initial Occupy Wall Street protests, you may remember a number of comical OWS parodies. One that floated around music nerd-dom (of which I’m of course a member) was “1% of music students do 99% of the practicing.” Amusing, but it definitely had a point. Another that packed some punch was the following:

Very true. I know that music directors and money-managers want to appease their financial supporters, but perhaps their revenue base (i.e., patrons) would increase if they updated their programming. Works by Schönberg are still considered aesthetically challenging by many groups (100 years later, mind you…). Okay. But you could throw in that or Berg along with recent works by Torke, Colgrass, or Ades and still have time to open the show with some Haydn for good measure. I remember hearing this NPR story a few years ago about regional orchestras that banded together to co-commission new music by Joan Tower and finding much success. The move added cachê to these smaller groups’ reputations, added new music to their repertoire, created buzz in their communities, and possibly yielded a number of first-time concertgoers.

Obviously I’ve not covered everything here. There are many things I’ve missed (intentionally or otherwise), and I’ve provided more questions than answers, but it’s a start. Food for thought, if nothing else. It’s been my experience, at least with students, that they’re much more receptive to contemporary music when they see it performed live. Even if they don’t particularly love the musical style, the live experience at least causes them to respect and/or appreciate the work that goes into it.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard, “It was way better than I had expected,” or, “It was better in person than listening to the CD.” Definitely something to consider. If we performers take chances on the audience, perhaps audiences will taken chances on us.