Let’s play a word association game. I’ll say a phrase, and you tell me the first image that comes to mind.

Classical music.

Yeah, I thought so. For most people the idea of serious “art music” conjures images of old people sitting in an uncomfortable theater watching people in black tuxedos play stuffy music on antique instruments. While there is a grain of truth in that visual — the average age of the art music audience increases each year — the reality is so much more interesting. Miami’s New World Symphony is working to reverse that trend, and their new facility on Miami Beach is a major part of that effort.

The New World Symphony is not — as many people assume, based on their “America’s Orchestral Academy” tagline — a “school band.” Formed over twenty-five years ago by internationally renowned composer and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the goal of NWS is to provide the best graduates of leading music schools with additional education, training, and experience, allowing them to be more than just stellar musicians, but leaders in the music world, and in their communities.

There are only eighty-six fellowship positions available at any time, so these highly skilled musicians — over half of them already holding master or doctorate degrees — compete against their peers from around the world for the opportunity to be a part of this organization. If selected they will spend their three-year fellowships honing their skills not only as performing musicians, but will learn more about the practical aspects of being a working musician, including personal presentation, public speaking, and general leadership and communication skills. (Speaking as an ex-music major, I can tell you that most students prefer to let their art speak for them, making this training extremely helpful.) Moreover, they are groomed to be de facto ambassadors for the world of classical music, helping to remove its social stigma as art for old people, and helping to make art music accessible and engaging to the public at large.

New World Symphony: performance space with window and skylight
Performance space with window and skylight

To further that goal, in January 2011 the NWS will officially inaugurate its new campus on Miami Beach, a marvelous building designed by world famous architect Frank Gehry to be the ceterpiece of a revitalized public space. I was fortunate enough to be invited to tour the center in its final stages of preparation, and while photography was not yet allowed, they were kind enough to provide me with some renderings. (For an excellent discussion of the building and park from the perspective of an actual architect, read Miamism’s account of the same tour.)

Tilson Thomas and Gehry worked to design the facility around the educational nature of the NWS, while still creating a beautiful space. From what I saw, they succeeded admirably. The building is located beside a new, large public park built with Chicago’s Millennium Park as inspiration. Designed by West 8, Lincoln Park is a small but beautiful space reflective of the city of Miami Beach: open, accessible, and multi-functional. One end of the park includes a speaker-wrapped space seating a couple of hundred visitors as they watch live performances of the NWS projected on the exterior wall of the theater. (Note that use of the projector to display advertising materials of any kind is strictly forbidden.)

Inside, the space has an intimate feel, less awe-inspiring than friendly and comfortable. Oddly shaped structures and unexpected corners abound, looking in places like a huge set of children’s toys haphazardly stacked in a large room. Sometimes these blocks have windows, and sometimes only just white walls. On the other side of those walls and windows, however, are rehearsal rooms, offices, and the other non-performance spaces required by a working facility.

This leads to one of my favorite features of the building. To reflect the school’s goal of increasing engagement with the public, many of the student spaces are visible to the public, not hidden away behind blank walls. In fact, when entering via the elevated walkway from the (also Gehry-designed) parking garage next door, you cross above a hallway, aptly described by communications director Craig Hall as like the tunnel the players use to enter the stadium at a football game. If you arrive at the right moment, you’ll be able to wave to the performers as they cross underneath you on their way from the instrument lockers to the concert hall.

Together with similar features in other parts of the building, this leads to an effect not unlike the reinforced glass tunnels running through some large public aquariums. Beginning in October of next year, if you enter the building on a day without a scheduled performance you will be able to observe the fellows going about the business of rehearsal, practice, and so on, from the other side of the glass. The public and private spaces are commingled, but separate. It’s a brilliant idea, and one I suspect will be popular with the visitors (if not the fellows; many musicians are rather private).

New World Symphony: performance space with large projections
Performance space with large projections

The concert hall itself is beautiful, yet casual. It isn’t high-brow or stuffy at all; there’s a distinct impression that tuxedos might look out of place here. The stage itself has ten independently controlled risers, allowing it to accommodate performances ranging from the full orchestra to a solo piano. There are also four smaller stages ringing the main stage, allowing for still more variations, and when they aren’t in use can be easily turned into additional seating. This flexibility will be useful for the series of planned evening contemporary music events called Pulse, which will (according the the NWS site) “[…] feature the artistry of Mercury Soul together with the New World Symphony in performances of theatrically enhanced contemporary music integrated into an evening-long set of DJ-spun electronic.” DJs? Electronic music? Theatrically enhanced? At the symphony?

New World Symphony: Performance space configurations - full stage
Performance space configurations - full stage

In the past the NWS has been good about mixing contemporary music with its traditional offerings, although the moneyed audience still comes out in force for the old stand-bys. As a NWS administrator told me several years ago, if you want people to write checks you need to trot out Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the 1812 Overture, and Rhapsody in Blue. As necessary as that may still be, though, those old money patrons are, bluntly, dying off. If classical or art music is to survive it must build a new audience, and that will be best achieved by performing living music alongside the standard repertoire.

New World Symphony: Performance space configurations
Performance space configurations - flat floor

Engagement with the audience is essential for any artistic endeavor. Surprise them, challenge them, and most importantly, share your enthusiasm with them. They will respond in kind. Sure, playing too many edgy contemporary composers may cost you a few of the tuxedoed bankers softly snoring through Brahms in the first row, but show people just how vital and exciting classical music can be and there will be a new generation of benefactors and fans moving in to replace them. Based on the comprehensive direction of this reimagining of the New World Symphony — from the concert hall to the educational campus to the event selections to the building itself — they are on the right track.

New Frank Gehry-designed garage
New Frank Gehry-designed garage

[Disclosure: As part of this tour I received free admission to that evening’s symphony performance. All images courtesy of Courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP, and New World Symphony.]

Musical Evolution: 2

[Continued from part one.]

This morning I took you through the first ten albums to have a pretty deep influence on how I listened to music, and how that music changed the way I look at the world, and who I am. At this point it’s 1977. I’ve graduated from high school, and am getting ready to go away to college. You could say I am now an adult — I certainly thought so at the time — but you’d be wrong. Charitable, but wrong. Whether or not I should be classified as an adult at 50 is an exercise I’ll leave to the reader.

  1. Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick — In college I took a class called “Oral Interpretation,” which was basically a guide to public reading. As part of the class we had to adapt excerpts from various works of memoir, fiction, and poetry for performance. I selected a chunk of lyrics from Ian Anderson’s loopy parody of concept albums, itself allegedly based on the poetry of a child in a small and quaint English town. After three minutes of solemnly intoning such classic lines as “I may make you feel but I can’t make you think. Your sperm’s in the gutter, your love’s in the sink,” my instructor applauded and asked the name of the poet. Without missing a beat I replied,” Gerald Bostock. He’s new.” The instructor dutifully noted the name as the class snickered.
  2. Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here — I’m not altogether certain which Floyd album I heard first, but the sad story of Syd Barrett’s mental disintegration came to me at a time in my life when my own psychic landscape was getting a bit rocky. The slick production stood out, as did the careful structure of the long-form work “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The title track, though, is one of the few songs consistently able to wrench my heart each and every time I hear it.
  3. Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Center of the Earth — When I first heard that the keyboardist from Yes was recording a concept album based on one of my favorite proto-science fiction novels, I had to have it. While prog rock has gotten a bad reputation over the years, I will always have a soft spot for the nexus of rock instrumentation and classical forms. Throw fiction into the mix, add an orchestra and a narrator, and let it simmer until the pretense and absurdity have largely boiled away; what’s left is a semi-soundtrack album I spun until I could practically play the horn parts from memory.
  4. Steely Dan: Aja — In my freshman year of college I met a sophomore girl named Amy, a music composition major like me. She loved the films of Woody Allen and the music of Steely Dan. The first time I visited her she put on this album. When side one finished she flipped it over; side two played over and over and over and over…. and that’s enough about that.
  5. The Residents: Duck Stab/Buster and Glen — “So you like weird music, do you? Have you heard The Residents yet?” And so an innocent question from my friend George Pearson introduced me to an art and music collective that changed the way I thought about creativity. Like Don Ellis, The Residents deserve an entire post of their own. For now, suffice to say that knowing a group existed that jealously guarded their identities by wearing surreal costumes and performed quasi-punk songs like “Constantinople” kick-started my fascination with performance art, experimental music, and underground culture. I recently satisfied a life-long wish, and saw them perform live at DC’s storied 9:30 Club. It was worth the trip.
  6. Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells — You probably know this album, even if the name is unfamiliar: an edited version of the primary theme was used as the music for The Exorcist. By the time I bought this my college education had gone off the rails, leaving my compositional aspirations strewn alongside the tracks, but I still heard large scale works in my mind’s ear. The idea that these two side-length pieces were all performed by the composer himself, that one person could compose and perform something that richly detailed was new to me, a kind of auteur theory of music. Absorbing the structure of the work, and doing some reading about how multi-tracking worked, helped keep my dreams alive a little longer, and made me love it even more. Plus, tubular bells!
  7. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice: Jesus Christ Superstar — I came to this one a bit later than usual — probably via one of my progressive Christian friends — and didn’t start obsessing over it until after high school. Having been raised without any particular religion, this was my first exposure to many of the details, and I was fascinated by both the story and the controversy. Musically I was once again drawn to the synthesis of prog rock, orchestra, and operatic vocals. (Trivia note: Even though JCS is subtitled “A Rock Opera,” it isn’t an opera at all. An opera requires costumes, staging, and acting (even if the rules on the latter are somewhat lax), while a cantata is purely musical and based on a religious text, as well.)
  8. David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars — If there was ever an anthem for disillusioned, artistic, young outsiders, this would be it. Loosely a concept album, Bowie’s full-throttle glam-rock portrayal of the possibly alien Ziggy blurred the line between fiction and reality, while the songs themselves varied between the nihilistic and the hopeful. By this time my numerous romantic failures, being exacerbated by my continuing struggle just to make rent, had pretty thoroughly alienated me from a world that was simply never going to understand me. In Ziggy I found an ally, and knew I wasn’t alone.
  9. Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy — Discovering Warren Zevon was a revelation to me. Sure, it was his kitschy “Werewolves of London” that attracted my eternally adolescent attention, but the other songs kept it focused. Here was songwriting with meat to it, songs with lyrics that told stories that meant something, sometimes funny, often tragic, occasionally both at once. The idea of songwriting itself as a form of micro-fiction was new to me, as obvious as it seems in retrospect. I saw him perform live once on a solo tour, but it was during his darkest days of addiction; I don’t think he even finished his set. I wish I’d seen him again after he cleaned up, but soon after he got straight, he got cancer. Sometimes great storytellers don’t get enough time on stage.
  10. Tom Waits: Small Change — I won’t even try to lie to you. Peaches Records and Tapes in Fort Lauderdale had this album on prominent display, proudly showing off its cover photo of Waits in a stripper’s dressing room. Once my eyes were sufficiently satiated to allow me to flip it over, I was intrigued by the description of the album’s poetry and jazzy style. Once it hit my turntable it didn’t come off for days. From “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” one of the greatest American songs ever written, through the slurred patter of “Step Right Up,” and to the heartbreaking “The One That Got Away,” Waits used unparalleled lyricism, blues riffs, and his whiskey-wracked voice to create a vision of a broken life that ripped at me even as it mesmerized me. Stories, music, poetry, and the ugly truth all coming together to let a unique talent craft something timeless from the ruins of the past. That’s America.

And with that, we’re done. I hope you enjoyed this recounting of a personal musical evolution. Perhaps it introduced you to a couple of artists or albums that are new to you, or let you see some albums in a new light. If so, let me know in the always-appreciated comments.

Tomorrow: Part three of two, and a bonus.

Musical Evolution: 1

Music surrounds us every day, and yet so often it’s little more than noise, a background hum behind our shopping experiences. I’ve never been able to cheapen it like that; music deserves our attention, not our nonchalance. I know this puts me at odds with most other people, but that’s a familiar position for me.

I was recently “tagged” to participate in one of those Facebook shticks, the kind where the respondent writes a themed list of some kind and then asks a group of their friends to do the same. This particular shtick asks you to list the twenty albums which have had the greatest impact on their life; the catch is that you are to take no more than twenty minutes to compile your list. Two different friends asked me to participate, so I opened the ancient hi-fi hutch in the living room of my memory and rifled through the contents.

As I jotted down the names, I decided that this could be a more interesting exercise than most of these shared ideas. My musical evolution really does reflect my own personal development, more than many people, I’d guess. It may also give some clues as to why I ended up being so— difficult. However, quite a few of these require a bit of explanation, either to who the artist is at all, or as to why this particular recording shaped my growth. Not wanted to choke anyone with an enormous and frightening block of text, I have broken it into two sections; part two will be published this evening.

In (very) roughly chronological order, here is part one.

  1. The Royal Guardsmen: Snoopy vs the Red Baron — The first record in my earliest memories, this locked in an early love for novelty records. As one of my first exposures to recorded music, I hadn’t yet learned that music was serious and life-changing business, and not intended to be funny. The lyrics to the title song and many others are indelibly burned into my mind, meaning that they make occasional and often inappropriate appearances. (To my surprise, it turns out they are from Ocala, and are touring this year.)
  2. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass: Whipped Cream and Other Delights — The sassy brass and catchy tunes caught my ear; it wasn’t until later than I found myself drooling over— er, admiring the album cover. The quirky pop horns and exotic marimba captured my imagination, and probably pushed me toward learning to play an instrument, too. It also stretched my Kentucky-born horizons a bit, introducing me (indirectly) to sounds from other countries.
  3. Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison — My parents really liked Johnny Cash, and I’m glad of it. Even though I was too young to understand the lyrics, the music, the timbre of his voice, and the general style struck a chord in me. I was singing “I know I can’t be free” back when the worst punishment I’d endured was being sent to my room (although when you are a kid that does feel like prison, I admit). Still, I knew that man with the gravelly voice didn’t care for doing what people said he ought to do, and how could a guy with a voice like that be wrong?
  4. Disneyland Records: Thrilling, Chilling Sounds of the Haunted House — I have loved Hallowe’en as far back as I can remember, so this isn’t much of a surprise. One side was made up entirely of creepy sound effects, although they weren’t really all that scary, even when you are seven years old. The b-side, however, was a series of stories told in sound, with just a few words to introduce each tale. With my  imagination set free I scared the crap out of myself, over and over again. Listen to a quick clip here.
  5. Chicago Transit Authority: Chicago Transit Authority — When I was in middle school the concert band had an arrangement of a song called “25 or 6 to 4.” It was fun to play, mainly because the trombones got to play the opening bass line. Being rather musically sheltered, though, I knew nothing of pop music, and had no idea it was something you could hear on the radio. This album, heard at the house of a friend, became my introduction to rock music, leading me to erroneously believe that all rock and roll had a horn section. While I didn’t get my own copy of the album until a few years later, I probably wore out my friend’s copy.
  6. Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters — This was the first album I ever bought, courtesy of the Columbia Record Club. By this time I’d been playing trombone for several years, and music had become my sole focus in life, jazz in particular. Still, nothing I’d listened to at school could prepare me for the dark and glistening fusion tones of this recording. The free-form recombination of  jazz, rock, R&B, and (then-new) electronic synthesizers opened my mind to the idea of a world without genres, where all that mattered was the sound. The bass riff behind “Chameleon” remains one of the funkiest grooves of all time.
  7. Maynard Ferguson: MF Horn 4 & 5, Live at Jimmy’s — By the time I was in high school I was fascinated by jazz, and an early favorite was the big band of Maynard Ferguson, a trumpeter known for his enormous range and willingness to cover pop songs. His over the top and completely bombastic arrangement of the generally reviled Richard Harris ballad, “Mac Arthur Park,” was amazing, boosting the pretentiousness of the original to wall-of-sound power. Once again the crossing of genres pulled me right in, and even today, “Mac Arthur Park” remains a favorite song. (Yes, I will admit that.)
  8. Don Ellis: Live at Monterey— It’s hard to underestimate the impact of hearing Ellis’ big band for the first time. Here was a jazz trumpet player who was writing hellishly difficult charts in non-standard rhythms, using non-standard tuning, and with non-standard instrumentation, and swinging like a classic jazz band. The song “3 3 2 2 2 1 2 2 2” — the title reflecting the subdivisions of the 19/4 meter as played by the triple upright basses — worked into my brain and broke something in a good way. The blend of east and west, jazz and classical, acoustic and electric showed me that you can respect your roots and still go somewhere no one’s ever been before.
  9. John Williams: Star Wars — I saw the film on opening day, after having been tantalized by a full-page newspaper ad weeks before it opened. From the moment the film began I knew I was going to love it; by the time it ended I knew I would see it again, and did, at the very next show. It was the first time I’d ever really been swept up in the score for a film, becoming aware of how the music subtly (and not so subtly) reinforced the film’s themes. I bought the album as soon as I found it, and played it all summer long.
  10. Blood, Sweat & Tears: Greatest Hits — “Spinning Wheel.” “Lucretia MacEvil.” “And When I Die.” “God Bless the Child.” I spent a lot of time analyzing this album, mimicking David Clayton Thomas’ blues-tinged vocals with growls on my trombone, and then sitting down with paper to pick out and transcribe the horn lines. Through this I came to understand what an arranger does, and how many other people contribute to any project’s success, often without any recognition. It didn’t seem fair to me. Frankly, it still doesn’t.

As I mentioned, part two will be published tonight. In the interim, if you have any comments or questions, or want to share some of your own albums, please leave a comment.

You just ain't receiving

You know, love isn’t very fashionable. To be hip you have to be jaded and cynical; it is de rigeur to curl your lip at the slightest mention of romance. Which is perfectly all right, if that’s your thing. It isn’t as though there is a lack of justification for the sneers and eye-rolls when confronted with someone infected with the first blush of romance. If it isn’t your heart beating a tattoo on your ribs when that special someone enters the room, it can be humorous (or sickening) to watch.

Love, however, has never been concerned with public opinion surveys. It does what it will, without the slightest regard for propriety, decency, or taste. In fact it often appears that Cupid goes out of its way to offend civilization on all three counts. Still, it’s love we’re talking about, so who are we to argue?

I’ve been lucky, I suppose. I’ve been fortunate enough to know love many times, in many forms. Even in the bad times—and there are always bad times—I’ve managed to hold on to my belief in love as a powerful force, a balm to soothe the world’s pain. Sure, it can be cathartic to tell yourself that you’re through with love, that you’ve moved past a need for love, but you are just fooling yourself. You may cut yourself off from the feeling, and you may channel your energies into new directions—hell, you may even start wearing black and proclaim the Official Death of Love. But it’s bullshit. Love doesn’t care what you say, it just is. No chubby little guy with a bow is going to feel sorry for you just because you got dumped.

But if crying in the wilderness that love is for chumps doesn’t get you anywhere, neither does making your life into an offering to the Goddess of Pointless Optimism and Empty Platitudes. Some things in life are meant to be, and some are utterly random, and there’s no empirical method for telling them apart. Perhaps he left because he wasn’t the one, and the right guy is just around the corner. Or maybe he left because a whole bunch of minor events lined up like microscopic emotional dominoes and stubbing his toe on the way out of the office tipped the first in line. How can you tell the difference? You can’t. You pay your money and you take your chance. Did you find the red queen? Aww, better luck next time!

So are the sneering hipsters right, then? In a word, no.

I’ve been in love more times than I can count, certainly more times than is normally considered healthy. I’ve spent far too many hours, days, weeks, analyzing the pathology of love, cataloging the symptoms I see in myself and in my friends, watching events play out, and trying to second guess the interpersonal clockworks of the world. I have indulged wildly in eros, philia, and agape. After all this lofty thought about the true nature of love I can close my eyes and see the silver strands that link us all together, and try to predict the effects of tugging a thread, or of knotting two together. And in those 3:00 AM moments it all starts to make sense, and I can see the patterns and understand where it’s all going. I finally get it.

And that’s when I realize I’ve been sucked into giving the three-card monte hustler another dollar.

Anyone who tells you they’ve got the secret of love worked out, well, they’re in love. Unfortunately, love is magic—chaos magic—so what works for one person is almost certain to fail for another. Did you keep looking until you found the person who felt right in your heart? Wonderful! How about you, did you find someone with potential and grow together? That’s terrific! And you, you met someone on-line without even seeing a picture first, and made sure you loved each other’s minds and hearts? Marvelous.

But what about those people who don’t have “that special someone,” how do you cope? Do you cynically laugh at those who are in love, and secretly hope it fails? Do you tell yourself you’ll settle for nothing less than perfection, knowing no-one can meet your expectations? Do you patiently wait for the right person to stumble into your life, when destiny decrees it is time? Or do you just despair, and assume your time for love has passed? Choose whichever path makes you feel best at that moment. Nothing about love requires consistent behavior.

But after all my self-indulgent introspection, my studies of human behavior, and my personal experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that from all the people I know, and all the books I’ve read, all the loves I’ve had, and all the gurus I’ve consulted, a pop singer is the only one who gets it. Bjork is right: All Is Full of Love. You just have to trust it.

Happy Valentines Day to my family, friends, readers, and visitors. I really do love you all.

Postscript: After revising this a bit for posting, I took a moment to read some of my regular sites. To my surprise, Kevin of Ghost in the Machine used this song (though a different version) as his Valentines gift. Good taste, my friend.