Felsenmusick - The Weblog of Daniel Felsenfeld
The Web Log of a Certain Daniel Felsenfeld: Composer, critic, avid reader, aspiring
bon vivant, capricorn, shadowy figure, advice for the lovelorn

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

New Versus "New"

In a way, I could not be more thrilled about the upcoming season of New York City Opera (after it's year-long intermission) because many of my favorite pieces are being performed. Operas by Stravinsky, Janaceck, Debussy, Britten, and Messaien's massive St. Francis undertaking are all personal touchstones. But the slant given to the lineup in the Times makes me a little uneasy, especially the part where Reich's music is being "considered" for a concert performance alongside some Messaien and Britten in order to "prepare" New York for what lies ahead. Now, lest I seem like just another composer with a blog ranting about just another incident of something 30-50 years old being passed off as "new," I have to say that City Opera, in my short experience with it, has been pretty good about promoting new pieces, by which I mean actually truly new. And to look at their program forthcoming, whose only entry by a living composer appears to be Einstein on the Beach (for which I cannot wait, honestly), I worry about this whole idea of what is "new." I mean, City Opera has presented pieces by Wuronen, Adamo, Heggie, Bennet, Tan Dun, Levy, Torke, Beaser, Dratell, etc. So what makes this season especially adventurous, other than it lacks an abundance of chestnuts?

I know these are complicated decisions, and that it is easy for us bloggers on the ground to play Monday Morning Quarterback with these complicated trends; and I say it again, I am eager to see all of the pieces promised by Mortier in his first term (and even eager to see the small concerts built to tide us over) and I think it is going to be exciting and smashing, everything good. But new...?

The Office Takes Real Life

In an episode of NBC's The Office, weenie boss Michael Scott is criticized by his corporate overseer via phone for blowing his office party budget on a Tsunami fundraiser that somehow managed to lose money. His response: "I was very clear, that was a fun raiser."

Well, art imitates life. This from Google News:

Alas, perhaps Senator Clinton could have used a little more of both.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Teaching, Loving

A week or so ago, at the ASCAP Awards ceremony, I heard John Corigliano address the group of fiendishly gifted benighted young composers. He warned them about the potential dangers of attending music school, and urged them not to dismiss their own passion, a passion he heard strongly in the music. It can, he intimated, be trained out of you. I got to thinking: what did school do to me? Did it somehow deflate my own passion? I got to thinking about my own personal training.

Like most composers, I was always the direct beneficiary of great teachers. Early on, I studied with Orange County's town musical genius Lloyd Rodgers, a declared “post-modernist” (whatever that was) who taught me rigor, ferocity, and that can be both tense and enjoyable. He loaned me a CD which I still cherish--Michael Nyman's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat--and led me like a wise sherpa into the mysteries of Bach. He encouraged me to write out by hand Bach's 48. I spent hours in a Denny's off the 57 Freeway in Brea, California doing just this to the amazement of the staff, who had never seen a composer before. I was forced to reminded them that they still had never seen one because the word composer was, to me, a hard-earned title. I preferred "student of composition," and was quite the little pain-in-the-ass stickler about correcting people for the next decade or so. Humble to a fault, I suppose.

After a brief flirtation with becoming a psychologist (as well as literature professor, physicist, etc.) while earning a living playing piano throughout the Inland Empire at piano bars or in the pits of community theatre productions of Annie while studying with a man named Brent Pierce at a local community college, I enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I was fortuitously accepted to a subsection of said university, the College of Creative Studies. This was a specialized program populated by a mere 200 students spanning seven disciplines, and I acquired a wild and bucolic notion of how my academic life would work. We were spoiled, with 24-hour access to two grand pianos, grad-student borrowing privileges, and no real grades to speak of, and we were constantly being told we were crème de la crème. Our passage through the program rested not on completing courses but rather on a substantial portfolio requirement. I would have to compose my little heart out.

It was here I studied with Margaret Meyer. She became my most profound early influence. Her own work was a cross between The Great Cannon and an edgy, California-style performance art. She urged me into odd directions that forced me to do things with which I was uncomfortable, capitalized on my inherent theatricality (I guess the nights with Annie did amount to something), and quickly and aggressively corrected some serious and onerous gaps in my unimpressive musical knowledge. (I remember her jaw audibly dropping at what I did not know: The Rite of Spring, Pierrot Lunaire, the Quartet for the End of Time, etc. She had me scurrying to the library for hours per week. I was 22 years old.) My favorite lesson with her was when she examined an art song I was writing--no doubt a setting of Dickinson—with lilting, triple-meter, C-major arpeggios that had taken me all week to contrive. She glanced to the floor, tapped her pencil on the piano, and sighed two words I will never forget as long as I live: "start over." In retrospect, this was the only criticism that could be meted out for this piece, no doubt difficult to administer to her little blue-eyed waif from the suburbs.

Margaret formed what she called an Industrial Music Ensemble, for course credit. This became everyone's favorite class. Each week a different person would "compose" some kind of "indeterminate" piece which the class would then perform. We had an unspoken competition to see whose could devise the wackiest. I believe I won this contest, but all because of Margaret’s performance. In my piece, which had the title of "Bogus Crap" or something dumb like that, we all took ceiling tiles to the middle of campus and banged heartily upon them with drumsticks, chanting. I was the chant leader, so all had to follow me, but as we were mid-performance in front of the administration building, the provost of the university appeared. This caused Margaret to chant, antiphonally, "I'm gonna lose my job" (the last word being a two-syllable descending minor third) to which we all responsorially added "she's gonna lose her job" (again with the minor third). The provost, whose name escapes me, came up and asked what we were doing. As the chanting continued, I explained, and offered her a tile. Being especially and unexpectedly game, she accepted, and before we knew it, the provost was leading our Industrial Music Ensemble in a newly-expanded version of "Bogus Crap." The words, were, I believe, “she won’t lose her job.”

Margaret instilled in me the idea that the academic way was not always the best way, and I continue to hew to this notion. Often, in fact, her devastating “start over” gurgles up, consigning much bad music to the fire. But when I left UCSB (why do people leave such places?) for the New England Conservatory, my whole life changed. I'd spent my time in college working to fill chasms in my learning, giving myself impossible listening assignments (three different Ring Cycles in a row; all the operas of Verdi starting with Falstaff and working backwards; all sixteen Beethoven Quartets in one sitting; the entire keyboard music of Bach; all of Schubert’s Songs), and working harder than I can even imagine now, composing twice as much as anyone I knew by the dint of the fact that I was putting in twice the effort. I worked indefatigably, and this was one of the happiest times I can remember. But I had to sort out how to do this: Margaret was not afraid to give me homework; learned how not to be afraid to do it. But even this was not enough. In heading out East to a venerated conservatory to get a Master’s Degree, I knew I had to change my thinking even more dramatically. The hardest work was, I knew, yet to come, and I white-knuckled the entire drive across country, terrified.

What is remarkable about Los Angeles and all of its attendant sub-locales (and in this I do include Santa Barbara, which is kind of the Angelino Hamptons) is both the sadness and the fecundity of that kind of isolation. When you live in Boston or Philadelphia, you are still in touch with New York; when you live in Los Angeles, you make your own rules, and out there things are, for lack of a better word, very Hollywood. This does not mean everything is shallow and meaningless, but it does mean that considering market, audience and money are is not a luxury, not the way certain people think. They are a mainstay, and you must entertain (no pun intended) these notions. I learned a lot crawling the balcony of the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion to hear Salonen conduct the Phil; I learned even more studying conducting with Mitch Hanlon, assistant to then-music-director of the Hollywood Bowl John Mauceri. In those places I was in the “swim” diametrically opposed to the Ivy League schools and hallowed Arts and Letters institutions that awaited me on planet East Coast. And now I was heading into what some people viewed as enemy camp. I had to be ready.

When I first arrived in Boston, I was dazzled. There I was in an actual city. I rode trains places rather than drive, I walked everywhere (rather than drive) and I stood on the steps of Symphony Hall shivering, not just from the unprecedented cold. It did not help me that the name of the subway stop was “Symphony” (always reminding me of what I’d yet to achieve); and the towering bronze statue of Beethoven in the school’s vestibule dished out daily doses of fear. Weekends spent occasionally in New York City revealed my own hope for my future, but I wondered if my delicate little art songs or quirky bits of chamber music would survive the first winter, let alone the Ballet Mechanique pacing of the big city.

I studied with the late Arthur Berger, whose wisdom I was too young to appreciate. For those who do not know, this was an extraordinary man and represented a link to history I’d only read (and dreamed) about. Copland dedicated one of his Emily Dickinson settings to Berger; Robert Motherwell had made a portrait out of staff paper that hung over the piano; Stravinsky had rehearsed his own Duo Concertante in the very living room where I came for weekly lessons; his next door neighbor was satirist Tom Lehrer. Here was a man who’d known many of my heroes, and what’s more, here was a man who coined the very word “octatonic” in a legendary article. He seemed impressed and flattered when I knew what the scale was, so high was his opinion of my, at best, unconventional training.

For all his knowledge and strengths, he did not quite understand my own 24-year-old ambitions. He wanted me to write cell music, based on set theory, and found this kind of composing so fun that he could not, for the life of him, understand why someone would not want to do it. I protested: I wanted to be the next Britten, Barber, Sondheim, or Andriessen (could not make up my mind), I wanted to study Shostakovich and Ravel, Copland and Ives, and there I was, week after week, spending my time with Webern’s keyboard variations or The Flood. I worried: I wanted a doctorate, but I felt that creating the body of work Berger would have me write would be dishonest. I would be writing the wrong kind of music (and to him, such a thing existed). I wanted to make operas, ravishing symphonies, pieces for voice and string quartet, while he would have me writing 30 measure piano preludes, each based on a pre-determined cell, by the triple gross. He was never mean, never overbearing, but spent a fair amount of time wholly exasperated with me. At a performance of my first work composed at NEC (a cute little song cycle entitled Five Songs for Five Friends, written without his papal blessing, or even with his knowledge) he surprised me by showing up, and more surprised me by saying “Nice songs” in his thick, old-New York accent. Of course, he followed this compliment by saying “they’ll never get you anywhere.” I still wonder what he meant.

I do remember fondly an hysterical evening when he phoned me—as I was heading out to hit the town, or what little of it Boston offers, on a certain Friday—to explain an aspect of his famous octatonic article he’d been unable to unpack during our lesson earlier that day. And so, for two hours, over the phone, I got an in-depth lesson in this famous scale from the man who’d given it a name. I felt I had touched history (which made the ire of my then-girlfriend, who was exasperated with me for missing the movie, worthwhile).

In the middle of that year, I heard Lee Hyla’s Second Piano Concerto in Jordan Hall played by Steve Drury and was officially knocked sideways. Here was something new, something raw and unexpected, something that made good use of the Western canon and yet whipped up a kind of art-rock furor I’d never experienced. I knew had to study with him, that this was the teacher for me. It was this piece that made me feel that I could be properly unleashed, that this boy from the suburbs could channel his still waters into appropriately raging torrents.

I pursued him with pointed and dedicated ferocity, and lucky for me this proved effective. For the next six years Lee was my teacher. He taught me how to listen. He asked loaded questions about every piece…or even the not-so-loaded “where is this going?” which became the question I always not only put to my own students but myself. But more than anything specific in our weekly lessons, I learned from Lee Hyla how to be a composer. I watched him wrangle his own career, very much on the up. He told me tales of working with the musicians in the mythical New York City I hoped would be my eventual home. He told me how the Kronos Quartet dealt with composers, where he sat during rehearsals with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and even showed me his own vulnerabilities when confronted in person with Elliot Carter, who I think scared him a little (and can he be blamed?). In short, I watched him be a living composer, someone who heard his music played often and well, and from this got a sense of how my own life would, if fate was kind, play out.

One of the staunchest lessons he ever gave was a life lesson. I’d stayed up for days at a stretch working to finish a score for a competition (I was in the finals). Then I took an early bus to New York, dropped it off, took a midnight bus home, and tumbled into bed, exhausted even for this lifelong insomniac. Weeks passed; I never heard the results of this competition—as far as I know, the 1998 jury is still deliberating. When I showed up, all the worse for wear, to a post-disappointment lesson and said something to the effect of “I guess this is what you call paying your dues,” Lee’s pointed and terrifying reply was a guttural “not even close.” This menacing retort still haunts me. There’s always something even more crushing in the future. I now know to keep vigilant watch.

Lee never “worked a room,” never lied to impress, never forced a student to write like him, never bragged or exaggerated himself, was always honest, suffered the slings and arrows without expecting pity, and always offered a fresh perspective on even my stalest of musical efforts. And as my style drifted towards his own, and eventually away again, he never complained, never acted threatened, and always, when given the opportunity, introduced me to whomever was at hand as “this is Danny, a really great composer.” He even once sought my advice on writing for soprano as he was, then, less experienced than I, and I found that remarkable: like many other great teachers, he was unafraid to learn from his own students.

Eventually school drew to a close, as all good things must, and I made my way to the City at long last. I finished my dissertation—an insane and unperformable opera of my own postmodern Peter-Greenaway-inspired devising called Thursday Night, whose sophomoric drama is my secret; please don’t ask (and if you are one of the few I’ve told, I beg your silence)—and did what people do to start their New York life. It is something of a blur: this was, after all, planet early 2001. I was 30 years old. As I toiled through the ranks, I was fortunate enough to befriend composers who I admired—and continue to admire—whose wise council as more experienced colleagues and friends helped me through many a time.

Almost as a knee-jerk reaction to graduating, I made a long list of composers who I felt had to love in secret throughout school: Brahms, Puccini, Britten, Copland, Barber, Glass, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Strauss, Verdi, Rossini, Sondheim, Andriessen, William Schuman, Roy Harris, Marc Blitzstein, the early music of Elliot Carter, John Adams, Menotti, Weill, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Poulenc, Michael Nyman, the entire supposed “neo-romantic” school, and many others. I undertook a systematic examination of these great people, even going so far as to write books about some of them, and came to realize something important: some of my taste, some of my earliest passion, had been effectively drummed out of me. This had nothing to do with New England Conservatory, nothing whatsoever to do with Lee (even though he is a man of very specific tastes not always consanguineous to my own), but had everything to do with the way an academic system trains us. We learn a linear explanation, and as there can never be a linear explanation for the development of a discipline—art is a messy business, with shaggy chads and untied ends—and as this is the “party line,” great work that does not suit the argument has to be excluded. Everything is about progress, or the idea of progress, and the retrogressive even among the great have little place.

To return to John Corigliano’s plea to the young not to lose their passion, not to “buy” everything they were taught in school, I could not agree more, and the nostalgic reflection it has here sent me to serves only to strengthen my own resolve. But I don’t believe school itself is evil, and I think a good student with a head on their shoulders that is full of all kinds of music can certainly cherrypick the good ones, decide who among the “elite” designated to teach are not able to steer them in the right direction. After all, John teaches, Lee taught me, and now, as part of the great circle, I have students of my own. I hope, like Lee, like John, I help them to think, to turn their passion on but do so with a technique that allows them to express themselves not only completely, but with clarity. That, to me, is all a technique is, the capacity to make your argument as clearly as possible. Passion is something that is not taught but encouraged, and has many different faces. Many conflate it with enthusiasm—I like this, therefore I am “passionate” about it—but that is not it at all. A tradition is earned and sought; it never, ever comes easy, and the time spent to learn it, to understand it, and to even contribute a verse, that to me is true passion. Schools can’t teach it, nobody can, but at their best the people within the hallowed halls can certainly aid and abet. Sometimes passion means being a little unpopular, going against everything you are being told (even if that person is your teacher—and sometimes especially if that person is your teacher) staying, as they say, “true to yourself.” And in a way, this is something school can teach: you can watch someone lead by example (as I did Lee, Margaret, or Lloyd) or you can be forced to hold your own against someone who is mightier than yourself (as I had to do with Arthur Berger).

I will end with a story. When at Tanglewood, my close friend Marc Mellits (a great composer and fantastic friend) sat at the table with the group of gathered composers and brought up Rachmaninov. Grousing was heard, from me as much as anyone, until Marc insisted we all loved this composer. In fact, he was not going to leave the table until we all relented. From many corners of this frustrated table wafted sentences like “well, the First Symphony is kind of ok,” or “I love those Vespers,” or “that Third Piano Concerto is really something” or “OK, OK, the piano preludes do have their merits.” Eventually we all relented—well, all but one of us—and I’ve remembered this ever since. Music is about love, and love is a strange creature that takes you strange places to which not everyone on the playground wants to go.