A Tale of Two or Three Violin Concertos in Cleveland

We frequently opine here about getting more people interested in “our music.” I had three experiences during my first-ever visit to Cleveland this past weekend which offer some interesting variations on this theme. For some weird reason, each involves a violin concerto, but that’s purely coincidental.

One of the main reasons I went to Cleveland was to hear Margaret Brouwer’s Violin Concerto which was performed on a free outreach concert given in five different venues over the course of five consecutive days. The piece was played by violinist Michi Wiancko and CityMusic Cleveland under music director James Gaffigan. After all the theorizing about the impact that venues have on audience perceptions about performances, I thought I’d test it out on myself and hear the concerto in two very different acoustical spaces. On Saturday, I heard the concert in the landmark century-old Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus, a space which looked and felt as imposing as a cathedral and sounded as reverberant. Sunday, I heard the program again at Rocky River Presbyterian Church, a structure built in the 1960s that is as acoustically dry as many recently built concert halls. Indeed, various percussion interjections sounded more startling in Stanislaus but that could have equally been because I had never heard the piece before. I soon stopped trying to make comparisons and got more interested in how successful this new piece was for audiences comprised of people who don’t normally attend orchestra concerts. I was told that someone attending the Stanislaus performance said, “I felt like this music was written for me,” and indeed it was.

Of course, I couldn’t visit Cleveland without attending a performance of the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall which I had been told is one of the world’s great concert halls. And now I, too, can attest to the hall’s fabulous acoustics, as well as its otherworldly Art Deco interiors. Unfortunately there was no new or American repertoire compelling me to attend; no music “written for me.” The program was just Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, both of which I’ve heard innumerable times, even though one of Gil Shaham’s cadenzas—no originals from Beethoven survive—almost sounded like Paul Dresher to my new music-starved ears. No matter, on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, the hall was packed and the performances received standing ovations, and I was glad I was there. Severance and its resident orchestra put Cleveland firmly on the world map, which makes it all the more surprising that I was unable to find a postcard of that great hall at the Cleveland Airport. The only Cleveland landmark I was able to find on a postcard was their eight-year-old football stadium!

Which brings me to the final violin concerto of this trip. As airplane reading, I brought with me a fascinating new experimental novel by Joshua Cohen called Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto which is ostensibly a never-ending monologue about the work of a fictional contemporary composer spoken from the stage of Carnegie Hall. It’s great to read a book that gets our music-making process down so well, and I imagine that anyone who reads this book will want to hear more new music. Yet in his introduction, Cohen writes that “modern or serious aleatory music […] is as deaf to the world as the world is to it.” That comment, from someone in the seeming similarly ghettoized world of experimental fiction, raised a flag for me. Sometimes it does feel like the world is deaf to a lot of music, but is it fair to say that the folks who are creating it are deaf to the world?

30 thoughts on “A Tale of Two or Three Violin Concertos in Cleveland

  1. EvanJohnson

    well…
    By using the phrase “modern or serious aleatory music” he merely shows that he knows nothing about what he is talking about, which is its own, serious, problem.

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    I agree. We sometimes represent ourselves poorly enough as it is – it’d be better if Cohen didn’t misrepresent us too.

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  3. philmusic

    “modern or serious aleatory music […] is as deaf to the world as the world is to it.”

    Its amazing to me that even smart folks can have such a limited world view and worse assume that we share it. Mr. Cohen probably thinks that this statement is a complement to composers. —We live in our heads working for future generations misunderstood by the public etc. etc. Perhaps he has only read about us in fiction, perhaps Jean Christoph, or seen us as characters in a film or 2. I had the same problem with that book “the mind body problem”. You know, Mozart is a burn out, blah blah blah. Unfortunately our professional knowledge can interfere with our mainstream enjoyments.

    Phil’s page

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  4. william

    Would the overwhelmingly white demographic of new music, and classical music in general, suggest there is some sort of deafness, perhaps mutual, between it and people of color? Is it, at least in part, an indication we don’t care, that we are deaf to entire segments of our society?

    William Osborne

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  5. Colin Holter

    Absolutely not. A consciousness of the divisions in American society – economic, racial, cultural, sexual – is at the very front of my mind whenever I write music. If I’m producing work that only white people can appreciate, it’s certainly not for want of trying to be relevant.

    One thing that I find heartening about the 21st century is that although financial capital is still tough to accumulate, cultural capital is readily available – the internet, free libraries, etc. One solution to the problem of not understanding new music is to listen to a lot of it and study it (which, by the way, is usually what composers do in order to understand it themselves). Nobody’s stopping any American, rich or poor, white or of color, from taking an interest in and researching new music.

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  6. philmusic

    Nobody’s stopping any American, rich or poor, white or of color, from taking an interest in and researching new music.

    Colin, I’m will to accept that the decimation of public school music education programs and their focus on classical music is just an unintended result of NCLM and the overall cost cutting binges of the last 20 years. Anyway, don’t you think there is a strong financial incentive for mass media and the entertainment industry to sweep classical music and all its forms under the rug? Just because popular music is more profitable and cheaper to produce than “art” music’s doesn’t mean that its purveyors won’t take every advantage they can. Its their business to do just that, that is, sink the competition.

    What does this say about the culture wars when even Mr. Rove wants to be a rapper?

    Phil’s Page

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  7. william

    Is it really true that no one is being stopped from appreciating new music, or more broadly speaking, classical music? As I mentioned on another NMB blog, instruments, lessons, and practice space for children all cost a good bit of money. The median income for white families with young children in Manhattan is over $280,000 while for Hispanics it is over ten times lower at about $24,000. (Info from the NYT.) Also, our public schools are paid for by local property taxes, which means that poor children get poor schools and rich kids rich schools. Does this shape the demographic of music education, and thus create a form of deafness, both conscious and unconscious, on both sides of the divide?

    I think concrete issues like this help us understand the importance of education in audience building. How do you reach a public with intelligent, creative music if the public is not educated? We forget that a big part of the problem is bringing audiences to intelligent music rather than taking a populist approach to composition. The latter might be sort of hip these days, but isn’t education more important as a long-term solution?

    If we really do care about this demographic issue, why do we so seldom speak about it, much less work for real solutions? There are some good education programs for minorities here and there, but they are surprisingly rare. Can we really say it is not our problem? Is it right for us to ignore it?

    William Osborne
    william@osborne-conant.org

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  8. Chris Becker

    This past weekend I with the help of a dance company I work (Racoco Productions) and Meet The Composer presented a pre-concert talk and concert of my music. My music is very collaborative, utilizing musicians from rock and jazz and their ability to improvise in a language that cannot be notated. I create pieces with choreographers that combine dance, theater and live music with results that hover between comfortable categorizing, and this was represented by two pieces on the program. For this concert, I also collaborated with a spoken word artist (based in Birmingham, AL!) for this concert in a new interpretation of the old song “Stagger Lee” referencing back to my recent Southern influenced CD Saints & Devils.

    We drew a completely diverse audience as a result of the cross section of artistic mediums and cultures on the program. People who were familiar with the poet’s work came all the way from Harlem to Williamsburg to hear him with my trio and as a result also saw collaborative pieces for dance they might not have witnessed otherwise. At the same time, people on the Racoco mailing list and composers in the loop re: this performance came out and heard pieces that incorporated rock and hip hop alongside music that might be more readily identified as “new music.” (PLEASE NOTE I am making some very broad generalizations here – I can’t speak for anyone in that audience – I can only report what people said to me after the show…)

    It was a tremendous evening. We didn’t expect such a large and diverse turn out. But in retrospect, it now makes a lot of sense.

    So in addition to the multiple venue performance of a single piece (something I would like to do very soon), I think a program that honestly reflects the varied interests of the musicians and composers involved (and perhaps utilizes performers from other genres) can bring you a diverse audience. Reach out not only to audiences but to the people in (and not in) your community who perform, dance or write poetry. Bring together a mix that reflects your passions and then step back and watch the sparks fly…

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  9. philmusic

    “Does this shape the demographic of music education, and thus create a form of deafness, both conscious and unconscious, on both sides of the divide?”

    Uh, no.

    Reply
  10. GalenHBrown

    “What does this say about the culture wars when even Mr. Rove wants to be a rapper? ”

    Aside from the fact that he looked like a fool, what’s wrong with Rove wanting to be a rapper? Why should rap have any less a claim on the attention than other genres?

    I think we make a serious mistake when, in the course of arguing that classical music is important and valuable, we suggest that classical music is better than or more worthwhile than other forms. The problem isn’t that rap music gets taken seriously (whether Rove was taking it seriously and making fun of himself or making fun of rap music is a separate issue, and perhaps worthy of discussion) — rap deserves to be taken seriously. The problem is that classical doesn’t get taken seriously.

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  11. philmusic

    Dear Chris: Wonderful, but people of color have been on the front lines of music expression for years. As I remember it Free Jazz is associated with John Coltrane.

    Oh, someone notated his entire recorded output (was it Andrew White?).

    Phil’s Page

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  12. Chris Becker

    I’m not sure what you mean by Stating the Obvious. Can you explain? All I was trying to do was take some of the issues in this thread and show how we as composers / programmers might diversify our audiences (and perhaps – as a result – our own creative output). I’m reading a lot of good things in this thread, but except for Frank’s original post, noone is offering an example of practical action being taken by us (the composers) to remedy some of these issues. Not that that is what motivates my own music making. I hope that instead my music is simply an honest reflection of my own…obsessions.

    I think you might be thinking of Ornette Coleman (who recorded an album called Free Jazz) – but I don’t understand what you were trying to point out in your post by dropping those two words. Can you clarify?

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  13. philmusic

    All I was trying to do was take some of the issues in this thread and show how we as composers / programmers might diversify our audiences

    Dear Chris:

    I admit that I was put off by your assertion that your music can’t be notated–if its good someone will do it. Anyway, I repeat– people of color have been on the front line of creating challenging and esoteric music for years. (does this clarify?) John Coltrane was certainly not the only person of color involved in free jazz. Anyway, my comments were not just directed at you but also at those who argue these issues in, and from, the most narrow of perspectives. I appologise to you as I have no problem at all with “diversify our audiences” as long as it does not involve pandering. I myself as a composer, since you wish to know, will not leave the job of educating our children to others. As a licensed k-6 grade band/classroom teacher classical music will not die on my watch, if I can help it.

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  14. philmusic

    Dear Galen:

    Again, I have some trouble understanding your arguments.
    Perhaps your not aware of the culture wars of which I speak. You know, the ones where Mr. Rove and company demonize popular culture (including the aforementioned rap music) as campaign ammunition to get their friends elected.

    I hope you don’t mind if I enjoy the irony and the hypocrisy.

    Phil Fried

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  15. Chris Becker

    Phil – Man, I’m still not following you. Some of my music is notated (we played through a chart on Saturday night), most of it isn’t. I was just trying to give people who aren’t familiar with my music (which you can hear at http://www.myspace.com/beckermusic) an idea of what my work sounds like in order to put my recounting of this past weekend’s concert into some kind of context. Does that make sense? I’m not sure why you bring notation up.

    “…people of color have been on the front line of creating challenging and esoteric music for years.” Yes. As have white folks. Phil,
    I am quite aware of the contributions of people of color to the culture of our country. At the risk of sounding defensive, is there something in my post that implied that I was not aware of this fact?

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  16. philmusic

    Chris? No– As I mentioned the comments–were not for you!
    I don’t know how to make that more clear.

    Reply
  17. Chris Becker

    Sorry, Phil if I was jumping on your comments. I forgot to mention I totally respect your passion for teaching music – that is a talent I do not possess. Working with young people takes a special person and I applaud your work.

    It may be that my real world scenario isn’t completely applicable to more traditional chamber or orchestral setting. Then again…

    The last thing I’ll say is that I and all involved with this past weekend’s concert were pleased to find that there was a method to bringing together a diverse audience WITHOUT pandering and/or watering down any of the work we presented. I’m only talking about an audience of 40 to 50 people…but that’s a start…

    Reply
  18. lawrence

    Re Cohen’s wording: for anyone with a music degree a little bit of research can go a long way, but understanding musical modernism can be a formidable task for a music lover who has never spent a day in a music department. How many nonmusicians are ever likely to encounter Grove Dictionary, or even know that it exists? Should they trust what they find in Wikipedia? If they can’t read music notation, should they be expected to understand the concept of quartal harmony or non-retrogradable rhythms? Are people who can’t read music allowed to have opinions about music’s cultural value?

    The truth is, it’s reasonable for nonmusicians to assume that local music critics know what they are talking about, just as we like to assume that articles we read in the NY Times outside of our discipline are fair and accurate – even though these same articles may make experts tear their hair out. We can wish that people were better educated in our terminology – but then do we really want everyone to be a music major?

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  19. william

    A lot of new music, perhaps most, seems to be written for a small circle of conoscenti, but I think there might be reasonable norms for musical literacy we could create that are well short of everyone being a music major.

    If children play in school ensembles, and if they are given creative, fun classes over a period of a few years that present classical music in its many varieties, a musically literate public would eventually evolve. Even new music can often be a lot of fun for children and adults if they are exposed to it in the right ways.

    In order to build publics, it is also essential that people have access to regular, affordable concerts in their own communities. We should strive to make local, professional music groups part of the identity and pride of every municipality with more than about 100,000 residents.

    With only one percent of our military budget — which would be 4.5 billion dollars — we could see a flowering of musical education and access like the world has never seen. This isn’t an idle, unrealizable dream. It is a matter of giving people a new vision of what their society could be. Other countries have done this, and we can too.

    William Osborne

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  20. GalenHBrown

    Sorry Phil, sounds like I had the wrong end of the stick. When you said “culture wars” I assumed you were talking about the “high-art”/”low-art”, “high-culture”/”low-culture” war that has also been going on and which I find misguided, but I see now that you are talking about hypocracy My appologies for lumping you in with the people who would make the argument I thought you were making.

    And if Rove was indeed “wanting to be a rapper” as you suggest it’s certainly both ironic and hypocritical.

    I hadn’t heard the whole segment, only the excerpt that The Daily Show played, and I just watched the whole thing on YouTube. My read on it is that he’s satirizing hiphop culture as a way of satirizing his own uncoolness, which does of course use the “coolness” factor of rap, but I think still in a condescending way. So I’m not sure the song is hypocritical, so much as offensively condescending (and embarassing). There’s also a racial component with the line “he’s so white from his head to his feet, but he will rap it when you give him a chance,” and before it starts they get their homophobic digs in with a joke about philataly.

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  21. Frank J. Oteri

    I received the following email from Joshua Cohen which I share here with his permission:

    Mr. Oteri,

    I was referred to your kind mention of my new book, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, on your site, which I have long enjoyed. I think, though, that that specific “deaf” passage you mention has been misheard, or misread.

    As the novel seeks to, hopes to, demonstrate: the world is “deaf” to classical music, comparatively speaking; historically, as a population with ears, our hearing’s much worse of late. I’m not talking about record sales or attendance numbers; I’m talking about the average taxpayer hearing music within, singing, living a musical life… And, on the other side, that composers (my Schneidermann among them) are largely, and SHOULD BE, “deaf” to the world. To listen to what goes on around us is to be told, repeatedly and loudly: don’t create, stay home, locked in, alarmed and entertained. I say “deaf to the world” in the same sense that writers of fiction, that all artists, should be deaf, selectively deaf: we should make our on roads, our legitimately strange individual ways… regardless of any worldly condition.

    As for my use of the word “aleatory” – I was referring to the improvisation of a cadenza, which is the subject of the novel – which IS the novel. “Chance” in its widest sense is the bane of advertisers and money men – the “death” of chance, in the codification of a work’s cadenza, is but one specific, cult-contextual manifestation of how art has become dessicated by the demands of a comfortable public.

    If you see fit to add my thoughts to the record, it would be appreciated. If not, know only that I thank you for taking the time to read me, and to offer your thoughts.

    I was so excited by Joshua Cohen’s response that I picked up the phone and called him. Turns out he truly is a long term fan of NMBx; he even referred to our “In The First Person” with Elliott Carter which was posted to the site seven years ago! Our conversation got so interesting that I told him to save some thoughts for when we both would be in proximity to a tape recorder.

    So, stay tuned for an excerpt from Joshua Cohen’s unusual book as well as an in-depth conversation with him in our InPrint section next month.

    Reply
  22. siconesis

    My music is very collaborative, utilizing musicians from rock and jazz and their ability to improvise in a language that cannot be notated.

    If it can be played, it can be notated. But not necessarily the other way around.

    Reply
  23. lawrence

    chance
    Mr. Cohen’s response is a very nice one, and I appreciate his point and his subtlety. But I’ll go ahead and be pedantic: improvisations, and especially cadenzas, aren’t typically thought of as aleatoric: a single person making things up in real time is not engaging in a chance procedure. The results may be unpredictable to the listener, but that’s not really the same thing.

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  24. Colin Holter

    If I may indulge in some counter-pedantry:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleatory

    Cohen uses the word “aleatory,” which (according to the hardly-authoritative Wikipedia) is a general, non-music-specific term for something luck-based – as opposed to “aleatoric,” whose denotation is specific to artistic techniques. Although I’m grateful he chimed in to elaborate (he’s a longtime reader – go us!), I’m still not 100% sold on Cohen’s point of view. But as for his assertion that the codification of a cadenza, for example, is aesthetic lethality of the sort that more than one current in contemporary music strives to avoid: I’ll get behind it and push.

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  25. pgblu

    Pedantry level 3.14159
    Aleatoric and aleatory both come from the word for “die” (as in dice, as in shooting craps), alea. So it’s not “luck-based” so much as “chance-based”. An improvisation is anything but chance… it’s not like the improvising brain is rolling dice before playing the next lick, after in the previous millisecond compiling a list of the possibilities.

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  26. marknowakowski

    Nadia Boulanger seemed to point out the oft-ignored obvious when she commented that (quoted from memory at the moment) “children are taught colors and words, but are seldom taught what notes are anymore.” Boulanger goes on to state that in the denial of a basic music education, children are being denied a birthright. As a composer who is rather taken with the power and potential of art music new and old, I can’t help but agree.

    As I’ve written before: there is no quick solution. Composers need to approach the education system, and prove the value and necessity of a quality music education . Perhaps (I hesistate to suggest it), the private schools are the place to start? Free of much of the crippling red-tape present in the Public-school system, this could be the perfect place to build a curriculum, using the “results” that would doubtless emerge as a way to hop over the understandably more-paranoid public schools administrations. Just my three cents….

    Reply
  27. philmusic

    Misunderstandings can certainly happen when specific or professional knowledge collides with general perceptions. It’s the price we pay for an open forum.

    Phil’s Page

    Reply

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