Month: April 2007

On the Pulitzers

Let’s get this disclaimer out of the way: I think it’s cool that Ornette Coleman won the Pulitzer prize. I’m a big fan—the disappearance of my Free Jazz LP in a move was a sad, sad day. (Yes, there’s a CD. But I had it on vinyl, man.) And if the jury wanted a controversy-free non-classical pick, they couldn’t really have done better. Coleman’s earned respect across genres in way that almost no one else can. Maybe that’s why the announcement has seemed rather anti-climactic. Then again, maybe it’s because the non-classical nature of this year’s prize was almost certainly a foregone conclusion.

What do this year’s Pulitzer music jury and the Supreme Court have in common? That one’s easy: they’re both stacked decks. And, coincidentally, they both delivered this week exactly what their selection was intended to deliver. The A.K.s who give the O.K.s started to chip away at Roe v. Wade, a reversal which should come as a surprise to exactly no one: when the last two justices were put on the court, this was what their supporters were aiming for. And a look at the Pulitzer jury makes it pretty clear that this was going to be a non-classical year, come hell or high water. Coleman, in fact, hadn’t even been nominated. Justin Davidson reports:

As jurors huddled for a weekend in March to go through the hundred-plus scores and recordings, someone noticed that despite the official desire for submissions in jazz, film music and other genres, Coleman’s latest CD, “Sound Grammar,” wasn’t in the pile. Another juror, ex-Timesman John Rockwell, sent someone out to scare up a copy.

(That’s got to rankle all those other composers who forked over fifty bucks with their nominating applications.) Jazz belongs in the mix, but do you get the feeling that prizes are going to start being passed around from genre to genre every year? It’s like instead of a de facto lifetime achievement award, it’s a de facto stylistic affirmation award. The politics around the Pulitzers will be the equivalent of the 19th-century Parisian Prix de Rome. (In as much as they aren’t already.) Here’s something else: for the drama prize, the board rejected all three of the jury’s recommendations and gave the hardware to David Lindsay-Abaire’s non-finalist Rabbit Hole. I’ll bet that within a decade, they’ll pull the same thing with the music prize, ignoring the jury and opting for a board member’s no-doubt-persuasive argument for some pop-jazz equivalent of Profiles In Courage, one handily available for purchase or download. (Historically, this has been bad news for composers: in 1965, the jury recommended Duke Ellington for the prize—it was the board that decided to give no award that year. Same in 1992: any committee that can screw over both the Duke and Ralph Shapey in the exact same way is something special.)

I don’t think awards are all that important, but the mechanisms behind them are interesting for what they say about the field. And it seems pretty clear that, at the moment, the outside perception of art music has become as much an exercise in stylistic categorization as it is in popular music. Staking out a genre is as important, maybe more important, that the moment-to-moment, note-to-note discourse, or the structure and rhetoric of an individual piece. For over a decade, I’ve been hearing new music that gleefully jumps the lines between various schools and styles, and I’ve never been of the opinion that there are musical goals that are limited to one genre or vocabulary only—I’m a confirmed eclecticist. But for now, we may be in for some historical housecleaning, celebrating more stylistically extreme composers and performers as critics and observers make an effort to fix points on the cultural landscape. I guess it’s a certain kind of entertainment to watch awards committees try and bend their heads around issues that the practitioners worked out for themselves years ago.

Career objectives

Sometimes, Moussorgsky is whole civilizations discarded by life. Sometimes, he is whole cultures from under which the earth has rolled, whole groups of human beings who stood silently and despairingly for an instant in a world that carelessly flung them aside, and then turned and went away. Sometimes he is the brutal, ignorant, helpless throng that kneels in the falling snow while the conquerors, the great ones of this world, false and true alike, pass by in the torchlight amid fanfares and hymns and acclamations and speak the fair, high words and make the kingly gestures that fortune has assigned to them. Sometimes he is even life before man. He is the dumb beast devoured by another, larger; the plants that are crowded from the sunlight. He knows the ache and pain of inanimate things. And then, at other moments, he is a certain forgotten individual, some obscure, nameless being, some creature, some sentient world like the monk Pimen or the Innocent in “Boris Godounow,” and out of the dust of ages an halting, inarticulate voice calls to us. He is the poor, the aging, the half-witted; the drunken sot mumbling in his stupor; the captives of life to whom death sings his insistent, luring songs; the half-idiotic peasant boy who tries to stammer out his declaration of love to the superb village belle; the wretched fool who weeps in the falling snowy night. He is those who have never before spoken in musical art, and now arise, and are about us and make us one with them.

—Paul Rosenfeld, Musical Portraits
(New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920)

Medium Well

Ever wonder what Chopin’s speaking voice sounded like? A lot like Jacques Cousteau, as it turns out. And heaven looks like Versailles. That’s at least on the evidence of this 1955 recording (auto-loading flash file) of the composer communicating through the late British medium Leslie Flint. Chopin describes his sensations of death, and his transport to an afterworld community of artists and musicians. He doesn’t like much modern music, although he respects some unnamed practitioners who are “sincere,” but then again, he’s been spoiled by music of the higher plane, which doesn’t even require instruments. (Wonder what he thinks of the video game.)

(A more reliable resource: the Chopin Early Editions collection from the university of Chicago.)


How did I miss this? On Tuesday, students and faculty at the University of Maine in Farmington premiered Philip Carlsen’s “Car Life: A Traffic Jam Session for Automobile Orchestra.” (Enthusiastic article here; skeptical article here.) The ensemble? Forty-five cars spread across three parking lots, conducted with a big red flag by Carlsen’s fellow professor Steven Pane.

Carlsen’s automotive orchestra used subtle and not-so-subtle harmonies, cascading and alternating a cacophony of horns, radios, warning beepers, revving engines, slamming car doors and human voices. It was all part of an eight-page, detailed musical score that had drivers keeping one hand on the wheel and the other on the radio dial, ignition key or door handle, anxious to honk their horn at the requisite times and blast WKTJ or WUMF at just the right moment.

Carlsen himself missed the spectacle, laid up with a bad back, which just means that there’ll have to be a repeat performance. I can’t wait.

(Appropriately tangential tribute: the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, car salesman.)

Berkshire beak-wetting

Let’s say you’re a good-hearted animal lover without a whole lot of money. You go down to the local shelter and offer to volunteer to do some work for them, and they say, sorry, in order for you to volunteer, you’ll have to make a cash gift.

Sound dumb? Well, replace “animal” with “music” and “shelter” with “Tanglewood,” and you’ll get the gist of this story from the Berkshire Eagle, which reports the Boston Symphony Orchestra telling its summer volunteers that they’ll have to pony up at least seventy-five bucks for the BSO’s Annual Fund before they’ll be allowed to work. Huh? Let me read that again. Nope, my bafflement still stands. Huh?

The BSO administration is crying poor, saying that Tanglewood loses money every year. So, of course, the people you take that out on are the ones already working for free. Oh, they’re also cracking down on the free passes that volunteers are entitled to in return for their efforts. Used to be, you’d agree to work eight hours, and you’d get a pass (that’s for a lawn seat, by the way). Now, no pass until you’ve already worked the eight hours, which kind of stinks if you’re only out there for a weekend or two. They’re also restricting the transferability of said passes.

At the informational meeting, which was held Monday at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, a BSO executive referred to the “egregious abuses” of the companion passes in past seasons, and told of one former volunteer who was surreptitiously leading friends through the gate “nine times an hour.”

I realize that most of the Tanglewood volunteers aren’t starving students—they’re retirees and vacationers looking for a good deal. And it is a pretty good deal: put on a name tag, point a few patrons in a few directions, hand out programs, and get to hear the concert for free. But, come on, they’re volunteers. The BSO may need new revenue streams, but the people who have spent years giving you free labor is probably not the best place to go looking for one, not from a morale standpoint, not from a staffing standpoint, certainly not from a PR standpoint. BSO development operations director Mia Shultz called the changes “a new definition of commitment.” It’s also an old definition of foolish.

Update (4/13): Geoff Edgers has lots more information, including a BSO assertion that Tanglewood loses $3 million every summer.


The Red Sox finally open at home today, inspiring this tangential, wow-that’s-ridiculous-but-this-is-a-blog-so-why-not question:

What if orchestras were run more like baseball teams?

Collectively, that is—what if baseball’s system for identifying, signing, and grooming talent were adapted for symphony orchestras? In baseball, there’s two paths to the major leagues. If a scout thinks you’re unusually talented, you’re drafted by a major league team out of school (usually college, but sometimes high school), after which you hone your craft on a series of minor league farm teams owned by the major league organization, hopefully getting to the point where you’re called up to the big show. If you’re not drafted, you can audition your way onto an unaffiliated minor league team, and try and work your way up the ladder from there.

Notice how similar this is to the current breakdown of orchestras in the United States, at least structurally. There’s conservatory and college ensembles, there’s smaller, regional orchestras, and then there’s the big city “major league” groups. And, for the most part, that’s the career path, with one crucial difference: for an orchestral player, there’s a blind audition at every step of the way. In actuality, most players in major orchestras have regional experience, and all of them, I would guess, have college degrees and/or stints in advanced training programs on their résumés—the experience, on paper, looks a lot like the college-minors-majors setup. But what if that progression were more formalized?

Just last week, I was getting some comedic mileage out of the Virginia Beach Symphony’s attempt to generate more marketing impact by changing their name to “Symphonicity”—I still think the name’s a mistake, but that shouldn’t distract from the fact that regional orchestras like Virginia Beach have a constant financial wolf at the door. An MLB farm-team model would make explicit what big orchestras take for granted: that the talent pool they’re able to draw from is largely dependent on the existence of mid-level, local, what would be in effect double-A and triple-A orchestras. It’s in a major’s interest to ensure that such smaller-scale ensembles stay in business—first of all, the current résumé-screened blind-audition process would otherwise be even more of a crapshoot than it already is: without enough “minor league” positions out there to give applicants an imprimatur of orchestral experience, the chances of landing someone who sails through excerpts like a dream but has no idea how to play in a large ensemble goes up. More important are the long-range consequences: if smaller groups go belly-up, then the talent needed to keep the tradition alive and viable is more economically likely to abandon music before it even gets a chance to be heard.

A large-market orchestra financing a small-market one seems rather goofy on the face of it, but keep in mind that a couple of them are already spending money in similar ways, in the form of advanced training programs. To name a couple, the Boston Symphony has the Tanglewood Music Center, which fields a full orchestra; Ravinia, the Chicago Symphony’s summer home, has the Steans Institute—which doesn’t. (Other organizations, like San Francisco and Chicago, sponsor orchestras at the pre-college and pre-professional levels.) There’s even programs that seem like distant echoes of an athletic draft, finding individual young musical talent and using the organization’s resources and reputation to offer encouragement and practical experience—see, for example, Chicago’s Diversity Fellowship Program, an interesting try at increasing minority representation and visibility in the orchestra world without sacrificing the integrity of blind auditions.

Is making the step from those sorts of programs to full-scale farm-team orchestras highly unlikely? You bet. But as smaller groups face increasing danger of folding up shop, it’s possible that, a couple generations down the line, industry groups like the American Symphony Orchestra League will turn to collective fundraising to keep the base of the pyramid healthy. (Again, not unlike Major League Baseball—I mean, if Steinbrenner’s willing to go along with revenue sharing, anything’s possible.)

Just so long as we don’t have to sing the National Anthem before every concert. I’m all for reasonable patriotism, but remember Karl Muck.